Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Mark Doty, _Deep Lane_

NEVER EVER EXPECTED to find Mark Doty sounding like Seamus Heaney, but the first section of what I suppose we may call the title poem of Deep Lane (which has nine installments interspersed over the course of the volume) gives us not only this--

break-table, slab no blow could dent
rung with the making, and out of that chop and rut
comes the fresh surf of the lupines

but also this--

harrowing, rooting deep. Spade-plunge
and  trowel, sweet turned-down gas-flame
slow-charring carbon, out of which sprouts

the wild unsayable.

The kennings, the barking assonance, the plosive consonants, the out-of-left-field adjective-noun pairings...it's echt early Heaney, right down to the potato ("white  root-flesh [...] dusky skin of the tuber").

Life's twisting path took me last summer to Knoxville, Tennessee, where I found a terrific independent bookstore, and I bought this in part because I was happy to see they stocked volumes of new poetry and wanted to encourage the practice. I had fallen a bit in love with Doty after My Alexandria and Atlantis--a happy blend of confessional and mandarin à la Merrill, the longer poems keeping dozens of plates spinning while maintaining a graceful composure. Sweet Machine and Source I liked but perhaps not as much; in School of the Arts he seemed to be prematurely slipping into the arid odorlessness of a Late Manner, and without consciously deciding I was giving up on him, I did stop keeping an eye out for new ones.

But--saw this in Knoxville, thought it was worth a chance, and it's good. If School of the Arts sounded a little Parnassian, this one (Heaney-like) has its nose close to earth: dirt, plants, animals, appetites.  "And then I was given the key / to a wanting that won't stop as long as I live," he writes in "Hungry Ghost," and throughout Deep Lane Doty leans in to appetite. Leans in, indeed, a bit more avidly than may have been good for him, as there are poems about intravenous drug use ("Crystal") and rehab ("God-Box"), but the book is certainly about the cost of the rush as much as it is about the rush:

if you don't hold still, you can have joy after joy,

but you can't stay anywhere to love.  That's the price,
that rib-rattling wind waiting to sleep you up,

that's the price the wind pays.

Some good animal poems here, too, and not just about dogs this time. "Pescadero" is an entertaining variation on James Wright's "A Blessing," with goats instead of horses, but the prize goes to "The King of Fire Island," which re-imagines Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose." Rather than a moose stalking out of the woods in New Brunswick, though, we have a deer making the circuit on Fire Island. He is not quite the massive pile of sheer otherness that Bishop's moose is--he's a "buck in velvet at the garden rim," his "handsome face expressive," with a taste for sassafras. Still, like Bishop's moose, Doty's deer is in a relationship to us both powerful and elusive, undeniable yet unnameable: "My friend? Have I any right / to call him that?" Good question.  But in this book, Doty walks antlered.

Nina Bunjevac, _Fatherland: A Family History_

PERFECT TITLE. PERFECT subtitle, for that matter. This is a graphic memoir of Bunjevac's father, whom she would have barely known--she was born in Canada to Serbian parents, but her mother took her and her sister (leaving behind, at her husband's insistence, their son) back to Yugoslavia (as it then was) when Bunjevac was about two because her father was involved in a Serbian nationalist terrorist group. He died about two years after their departure in an accidental explosion while in the process of making a bomb.

Bunjevac's father is a territory accessible to her only through a kind of reconstruction, which gives us one dimension of the title, and her father's life came down to dying for the patria, which gives us another.

The subtitle, "A Family History," is just as fitting, since her father's selfhood was governed by an intersection of the family he happened to have been born into and the country he happened to have been born into--both configured by dislocation, coercion, broken faith, and divided loyalties. Peter Bunjevac's was a life shaped by its grievances (father's alcoholism, mother's early death), and the Serbs were, in those years, a people shaped by their grievances. Not that the book offers excuses or apologies--it seems mainly an attempt to understand.

There is something of Crumb in the drawing here--the thick peasant bodies that seem designed for enduring misery and cruelty--and in the inking--the infinitity of textures created by cross-hatching and webs of fine dots. Crumb would likely never attempt the chronological gymnastics of Bunjevac's narrative, though, which starts in 2012, jumps back to 1975 and Bunjevac's mother's decision to leave, then to 1977 and the news of her father's death, then back to 2012, then all the way back to Yugoslavia in the 1930s and her father's boyhood, eventually looping back to 1975 and 1977...as with Bechdel's Fun Home, though, there is something about the form (the repeating of panels, for instance, but newly contextualized by additional information) that permits extensive re-configuration of narrative time without loss of clarity.

Been on a bit of a graphic binge lately.  Blame Scott McCloud and Best American Comics of 2014.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault, _Jane, the Fox, and Me_ (trans. Christine Morelli and Susan Ouriou)

A GRAPHIC NOVEL marketed for young readers, apparently, but you could have fooled me. As novels for young readers go, it comes awfully close to the bone. Our heroine, Hélène, lives in a city in Francophone Canada, is about thirteen, thinks she is fat, and has been cut socially and turned into a butt of ridicule by her former friends. Her dresses are homemade. When her class goes on a weekend cabin, she ends up in the outcast cabin, each outcast in her own dead zone of loneliness.

This is all rendered in faint lines and nearly colorless washes. Hélène always seems to be looking for the place in the panel where she can hide.

She does have some sources of support, though. Her mother, even though she has put in a full day at work and a full evening cooking and cleaning, is willing to stay up much of the night making her a crinoline dress. And Hélène is reading Jane Eyre.

What is it about Jane Eyre? This fall I taught it in a regular course for the first time.  Even though I had been through it two or three times over the years with students who were doing individual special projects, I was not at all prepared for what happened.

In most literature classes these days, there are more women than men, but in this class the margin was wide, nineteen to five, and teaching Jane Eyre was like...I've never surfed, but it was like what I imagine surfing might be, being borne by a giant wave, lifted by a force that by careful balance you can just manage to stay on the leading edge of. Not everyone loved the book, but everyone cared about it, and it was easy to see how the novel could be, for a tempest-tossed adolescent like Hélène, a life-raft.

Other sources of support arrive for Hélène. There is the fox, who wanders out of the woods for a brief moment of communion with her, and more crucially there is Géraldine, who wanders into the outcasts' cabin (having been exiled from the cool girls' cabin) and instantly, without even seeming to try, creates a bond among the outcasts and a sense of budding possibility.

So things do work out--still, this graphic novel is so chillingly accurate about the swift and inexplicably cruelty of children (cf. Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye) that I would think twice about giving it to anyone under sixteen. Think twice, then perhaps give it anyway, since it is also accurate about the power of a great novel.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Simone de Beauvoir, _Une mort très douce_

A SHORT BOOK, more of a long essay, on the final illness and death of Beauvoir's mother--the book club read it this past August, but I never got around to writing a blog entry on it, partly because the school year kicked in and partly because I'm still wondering why she wrote it.

I found myself wishing I had read Mémoires d'une jeune fille bien rangée, published six years before this one. In places Une mort très douce alludes to the ways Beauvoir's mother, who seems a fairly conventional sort of woman, had to come to terms with being a parent of one of France's most prominent and convention-defying intellectuals.  Beauvoir's autobiography probably sheds some valuable cross-illumination on this text, just as Roth's Patrimony does on The Facts (and all of the novels with some version of Herman Roth). Probably.

The title turns out to be ironic--one of the doctors mentions that Beauvoir's mother is going through a relatively easy or gentle death, but the narrative makes clear that even a relatively easy death, with modern medical attention and nationalized health insurance, is arduous enough.

It's a swift read, vivid and immediate. Puts you right in the face of how we die. Maybe that's all the why it needs. Maybe that's also the reason I never felt like writing about it.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

R. Crumb, illus., _The Book of Genesis_

WHICH IS MORE surprising, that the NYRB reviewed this or that they gave it to Harold Bloom?

Crumb does have some high cultural clout these days, subject of a well-reviewed documentary, frequent contributor to the New Yorker, and Bloom did give us The Book of J. But I remember seeing the review and thinking we had crossed into some whole new terrain.

Not that Bloom figured out what to say about this. As I recall, he noted that Crumb's admission of inability to draw beautiful women was all too true, then spent most of the review talking about Mann's Joseph and His Brothers. Given how seldom any occasion to talk about Joseph and His Brothers occurs, we can hardly blame Bloom for taking even this remote one, I suppose.

Still, I wish they had given it to...I don't know, Jonathan Lethem? Luc Sante? Anyone who had once held a Zap comic before dilated pupils?

The crucial point for this reader arises from the acknowledgement Crumb gives to Pete Popalski for "hundreds of photos from Hollywood Biblical epics."  Crumb hasn't bothered to get archaeological on us, thank heavens, but instead gives us a Biblical world that looks like that of The Ten Commandments or The Robe or the comics versions of Bible stories one sometimes got in Sunday School in the 1950s and 1960s (not that any comics artist of that era would go in for the insanely detailed texture effects Crumb loves so much, not if he wanted to meet a deadline).

The superficial resemblance of Crumb's Book of Genesis to such workmanlike, anodyne, sanitized versions brings out the full subversive power of his decision to cover all of Genesis in all its grotesque ancient glory--Lot and his daughters, Onan spilling his seed,  the massacre at Shechem, Abraham pretending Sarah is his sister, the whole bizarre Bronze Age gallery. Genesis needs an illustrator capable of looking unblinkingly and without embarrassment at human kind in all its grossness, and in Crumb it has found one.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Scott McCloud and Bill Kartalopoulos, eds, _The Best American Comics 2014_

I ALWAYS ENJOY these, but this one was special. What better editor for such a volume than Scott McCloud? Articulate, catholic in his tastes, alert to good work on every front, from web comics to graphic novels for young adults to the outer fringe, McCloud is as near an ideal editor as one can imagine, his prose, judgement, and editor's eye rise to every occasion, from Chris Ware 's Building Stories to Allie Brosh.

"Please read, do not browse," warns McCloud's foreword. "The following comics selections and text explanations are meant to be read in the same order in which they're presented here." I did exactly that, and you should too. It's an essay in the form of an anthology.

I only wish they would have him edit it every year.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Dara Horn, _A Guide for the Perplexed_

I WAS WONDERING about the four-year-gap between Horn's third, All Other Nights (2009) and this, her fourth (2013), when I saw in the little author bio that she has four children. Four years seems blazingly quick, in those circumstances.

Internet gazillionaires keep showing up in the fiction I'm reading these days--Dave Eggers's The Circle, Joshua Cohen's The Book of Numbers, now this...apparently there's one in the new Jonathan Franzen as well. Horn's Josie Ashkenazi has invented an app that functions as your own personal, infallible super-memory. It's called Genizah--like Horn's other novels, this one is saturated in Judaica--and in another strand of the novel, Horn gives us the historical figure Solomon Schechter, the scholar responsible for salvaging the contents of the famous Cairo Genizah, which included some correspondence of Moses Maimonides, who, yes, figures in yet another strand of the novel (which, for all its strands, comes in at a nice, compact 336 pages).

Sounds complicated, I know, but things cohere nicely. Our theme is memory, both human and mechanical, both individual and collective, both of the living and of the dead, and the crucial point is that siblings never forget.  If you have a sibling, you know it's true.

This brings us to Judith, Josie's older, never-quite-got-it-together sister, to whom Josie has given a job in her company despite Judith's having no particular talents and despite Judith's having, when the two were kids at camp, abandoned Josie in some kind of pit (while in the pit, Josie has a vision that becomes the genesis of her amazing app).

It's a initiative of Judith's that takes Josie to Cairo, where she is kidnapped by terrorists. For most of the present of the narrative, she's a captive, trying to get a message out to her family.

Gradually, back home, while they wonder what has become of Josie, Judith moves in with Josie's husband and daughter, in effect occupies Josie's life--a Paul Auster sort of twist, I thought, cf. Leviathan. Judith finds that Josie's life suits her and faces an ethical crisis when Josie, during a hiccup of inattention by her minders, manages to place a call home.

This sets up a Sidney Carton / Charles Darnay big finale. Wasn't too crazy about this, actually, seemed a little contrived, but given the unlikelihood of the rest of the plot, I hardly have reason to complain. The novel as a whole was cleverly done, and I enjoyed reading it, so why quibble?

Friday, November 27, 2015

Joshua Cohen, _The Book of Numbers_, and Adam Mars-Jones

ANOTHER BRILLIANT PERFORMANCE by Mr. Cohen, among whose unabashed fans I count myself, and something of a banking turn away from Yiddishkeit into the Way We Live Now by my favorite American under-40 fiction writer...though still within the gravitational pull of Judaica, obviously, with its title drawn from the Torah. My guess: the conflict in the (original) Book of Numbers between those Hebrews who are going to enter the Promised Land and those who are not is being compared, tongue I suppose a bit in cheek, to the conflict in the novel between the paper-and-ink literatus Joshua Cohen I (not to be mistaken for the author) and the internet zillionaire Joshua Cohen II (clearly not to be mistaken for the author). What Promised Land is this, one has to wonder...

...but since some of my thoughts on this novel are scheduled to appear in paper-and-ink next spring, I am going to proceed to the topic of Adam Mars-Jones's review of it in the London Review of Books, which seemed uncharacteristically impercipient to me.

In particular, I was dismayed by Mars-Jones's statement that "I've never before come across a book that finds its feet a third of the way through," which he later elaborates as "it's common enough for a long novel to have a short one inside it, wildly signaling to be let out [...]." M-J admires the voice Cohen the novelist has invented for Cohen-the-entrepreneur and even seems to think the middle third of the novel (i.e., Cohen I's drafts, fragments, and transcripts of the ghosted autobiography of Cohen II) could stand as a work of fiction by itself.

Well, maybe it could. It's obviously better where it is, though, because of the whole who-shall-enter theme.

Can't blame M-J for falling in love with Cohen II's language--Cohen the novelist, showing the same flair for heteroglossia he has shown elsewhere, nails early 21st century American geekspeak: its abbreviations, its predilection for coining verbs out of nouns, its shortcuts and pithiness. But Cohen-the-novelist just does as well with blogger-speak, lawyer-speak, agent-speak, and so on, and the voice he gives Cohen I is (I think) is as perfectly tuned to its character in its luxuriantly lyrical way as Cohen II's is. That account of the publication party...perfect.

Maybe it's a British thing. M-J's attraction to the voice of Cohen II reminds me of the way Martin Amis and James Wood talk about Bellow's style. The chewier, the better. Well.

Still, I'm delighted to see the LRB gave The Book of Numbers about as much space as and a stronger reviewer than Purity got. Things are looking up!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Jonathan Haidt, _The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion_

MALCOLM GLADWELL'S SUCCESS has, I think, persuaded many academic psychologists that their research can land them on the bestseller list, if presented with timely everyday examples in crisp, inviting prose. Nuances are lost, I imagine, rough spots in the findings glossed over, but since I am unlikely to ever plow through any actual psychology journals, I am glad that people like Haidt are having a go at writing for the lay reader.

Haidt is a social psychologist particularly interested in our perception of the moral, and  his book is in three parts, each with its "central metaphor."

First, "The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider's job is to serve the elephant." Reversing somewhat Plato's image of horse (appetites) and rider (reason), Haidt argues that our moral judgements tend be immediate and intuitive, and we use our reason not to arrive at them but to justify them after the fact.

Second, "The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors." That is, just as (if Steven Pinker is right) our brains are born with a predisposition to analyze and acquire language, we are born with a predisposition to evaluate situations in six different moral dimensions: care vs. harm, fairness vs. cheating, liberty vs. oppression, loyalty vs. betrayal, authority vs. subversion, and sanctity vs. degradation. Not that we all prioritize the six in the same way; those on the right, for example, value authority and sanctity more than do those on the left.

Third, "We are 90% chimp and 10% bee." That is--and here is where Haidt is getting venturesome--he is willing to argue there has been some group selection going on in human evolution, that some kinds of co-operation was both inheritable and enhanced out survival odds. I gather he is a bit unorthodox or at least controversial here, but he seems to have a point--being able to use language, for example, can immensely enhance one's chances for survival, but only if your fellow humans have the same ability. Certain circumstances have the power to make us (but not chimps, apparently) function as a group, like bees or ants. Religions, sports, rock concerts can all flick what he calls the "hive switch," and Haidt argues that you cannot understand human morality if you leave that out of account (as do, he thinks, the "new atheists").

Interesting stuff, and highly readable. Haidt apparently hopes that understanding all the above will improve our national discourse--understanding where the other person is coming from, why minds are so hard to change, that sort of thing. I don't think even Malcolm Gladwell could make that happen, though.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

J. D. Schraffenberger, _The Waxen Poor_

THE BOOK'S TITLE is a curveball; my first guess was that it referred to the effects of a inadequate diet on the complexion. One of the blurb writers went similarly astray, I suspect: "With words that melt us down like fire burning candle wax," etc. Turns out that the modifier "waxen" is in this instance derived not from the noun "wax" but from the verb "wax," to grow or to become, as in the verse from Leviticus that serves as epigraph: "And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee."

Roughly the first third and the final third of the book are devoted to poems about Schraffenberger's brother Tom, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic in his early teens, institutionalized soon after, and died young. The Leviticus verse is clearly not only about blood relatives, but its pertinence is apparent; Tom did fall into decay, did become a kind of stranger or someone on a lonely journey, and the poems are about what one could and could not do to relieve him.

As in his first book, Schraffenberger seems drawn to not-entirely-closed forms; the unrhymed sonnets of Saint Joe's Passion have a kind of parallel here in several poems with unrhymed couplets and unrhymed terza rima (if it isn't an oxymoron to so designate them). We even have some rare examples  of that most closed of closed forms, the acrostic, in a series of poems called "Meds," in each of which the side effects of a particular drug are described in poems that vertically spell out its name.

The poems that really open out the book, though, are prose poems--"Full Gospel" and a series of untitled short pieces halfway into the book (which may be part of "The Once and Future Me"; I couldn't quite tell). "Full Gospel" places Tom's psychotic break in the context of the Pentecostal faith of his and the author's grandparents, linking up with other religiously-themed poems ("Communion," "Messianic," "Judas"), but at a kind of oblique angle, both formally and (shall we say) theologically. The poems at mid-volume likewise feel like a departure from the rest of the volume, but a departure that somewhat mysteriously belongs, adding a dimension without being part of the picture in any immediately identifiable way.

Nice cover, too, from Twelve Winters Press. No nice way to say this, but the cover of Saint Joe's Passion was god-awful. What is it with Etruscan? They publish good poets, but their covers always look like self-published volumes of devotional verse.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

J. D. Schraffenberger, _Saint Joe's Passion_

A FIRST BOOK, frrom 2008, Saint Joe's Passion is a bit like a novel in sixty poems. Joseph Johnstone is a professional voice-over artist who discovers he has a throat cancer; the main through-line of the book concerns the diagnosis and his hospital stay for an operation, but some poems function as flashbacks to his childhood, young manhood, marriage (ended quite a while ago).

Some poems are in the first person, some in the third; all have a closed-form feel, but not fussily so. Schraffenberger seems especially attracted to a kind of unrhymed sonnet.

The poems are respectful of tradition, then, but in an unshowy way, tend to be plainspoken, rarely have anything very dramatic to offer, and in these respects they resemble the protagonist.  Joe is educated and appreciates the poems of Catullus and Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. He's a conscientious professional, but his career has lain in using his voice for words written by others, and we get the feeling that a lot of what was on his mind he never got to say. He tried to be a good husband and father but struggled to hit the right note.

He's a relatively ordinary man, then, but he is facing the final thing, so even the ordinary has a peculiar weightiness; parking in the hospital's lot, he wonders if he is unbuckling a seatbelt for the final time.

Saint Joe's Passion put me in mind of Tinkers by Paul Harding, or Ironweed by William Kennedy, understated novels that derive a lot of their strength from sheer quietness, from refraining from emphasis, whose characters acquire definition only gradually, but seem the more real for that.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Lisa Robertson, _Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip_

AFTER READING THIS, I was so floored that I decided that I needed to read it again before I wrote about it; having re-read it, I am re-floored, and capable of but three paltry observations.

1. I notice from the copyright page that the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council provided "generous assistance" for this volume. So why does the NEH never pony up for anything this good? Hmm?

2. I love it that the book has an index of first lines.

3. The passage on pages 86-87 beginning "I shall offer a short allegory" is about as good as assessment of the state of poetry occurring within a poem as I can think of. Up there with "East Coker."

That's about all I have, pitiful though it is. In my alter-identity as a pop-punk songwriter, however, I decide to compose a sort of cento of the book.  The music owes a large debt to the Damned's "New Rose," so my tribute to Lisa Robertson is simultaneously a tribute to Brian, Rat, Dave, and the Captain.  Here it is.


“Like a boy blowing from a tree”
“Docents stroked my milky ego”
“I strewed, I strove, I swelled all night”
“disappeared / into Architecture”
“and then the sea and then the air
and then the upper part ignites”
“Then everything begins to dilate”
“which is a god mixed with what we can want”

From the get-go, I was in your grip--
The day I read your Magenta Soul Whip.

“We call this food, and it fabricates us”
“Where erupts the morning’s catalogue”
“Your failures are no longer sacred”
“’None of the forms feel big enough’”
“I said I didn’t know what thinking is”
“I met a dog who collected doubt”
“Fashion determines empathy”
“’Soon there will be only society’”

As Robert Hunter might say, it was a short, strange trip,
The day I read your Magenta Soul Whip.

“A lady’s reach must exceed her grasp”
“A rubric is a thick red earth”
“I will put them / In a bande dessinée”
“They are only animals”
“I shall offer a short allegory”
“loading bays and stilted awnings”
“Might there be a motion that is not itself”
“My fidelity is my own disaster”

Proud to be part of your readership,
And now I’ve read your Magenta Soul Whip.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Susan Howe, "Vagrancy in the Park"

AS A LONGTIME subscriber to The Nation (23 years and counting), I would not say that I read it mainly because of what it does and has done for poetry, but I am certainly grateful nonetheless.  There is a poem or two most weeks, usually quite good ones, plus the essays of Ange Mlinko, and this week (the November 2 issue) a great essay on Wallace Stevens by Susan Howe (drawn from a forthcoming collection of her essays, it appears).

Not only is the essay vintage Susan Howe--a distinctive hybrid of local history, personal history, aesthetic appreciation, and deep engagement of one writer with a crucial precursor, worthy of the author of My Emily Dickinson--but I am glad to have a reaffirmation of Stevens's power as a poet, given that he gives contemporary readers plenty or "urggh" moments of the WASP male complacency variety.

Howe does not get into Stevens's "urggh" moments, which is okay with me, because I know, as an admirer of the likes of Yeats, Pound, and Eliot, that there is really no good apologia for the many little dog turds one will be occasionally stepping in as one reads Yeats, Pound, and Eliot; any defense will just spread the mess further. About all you can do is say, "yep, that's there, too." The rest of what's there, though, is the real thing, and Howe's essay gets at a lot of the real thing in Stevens. Not that she is avoiding what is difficult--that last passage of the essay, on "The Irish Cliffs of Moher," is wrestling with some angel.

So, thank you, Susan Howe, and whoever (Mlinko? John Palatella?) decided to find to find give eight pages of The Nation to it.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, _Between the World and Me_

JUST SO YOU know, LLL is no johnny-come-lately to Mr. Coates, as you can see for yourself by our May 27, 2011 post on The Beautiful Struggle. Happy to report, though, that the praise that has come Coates's way for this new book is merited. If you were wondering whether you should read it, the answer is a definite yes.

I'm not sure about the invocations of James Baldwin that accompany almost every discussion of this book, though, starting with the back cover blurb from Toni Morrison herself: "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." This sounds badly off the mark.  For one thing, Baldwin died in 1987, approaching thirty years ago, and given the work done since 1987 by (for example) Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Charles Mills, Patricia Williams, Percival Everett, and one Toni Morrison, one has to wonder...what intellectual void? If the Harlem Renaissance was a golden age for African American letters, what we've had since 1987 is a golden age squared.

Oh, I know. Blurbs are blurbs. They are not meant to be scrutinized. Still.

And yes, it is true that Between the World and Me consciously follows the example of The Fire Next Time: an open letter to a 15-year-old African American male, a no-punches-pulled assessment of the racist society that the young man was born into and will have to somehow find a way to be an adult in. And like Baldwin, Coates is especially good on the willed obtuseness of "white" America, the people he calls the "Dreamers," deludedly believing that the United States and its culture are their own unassisted creation, when evidence that African American labor and imagination shaped that culture are everywhere one is willing to look.

But...when I think of Baldwin, I think of his moral clarity certainly, but I also think of his gravitas, that music in his prose that came from being steeped in Shakespeare and the King James Bible, the occasional cadences of the church, of black preaching. Coates's music is nervier, more staccato, more jabbing.  It has its luxuriances, too, but they are the luxuriance's of a tagger, not the baroque flourishes of Baldwin.

In a word, he does not really remind me of Baldwin at all. Which is fine. We've got a Baldwin.  Let Coates be Coates.

I loved, for instance, the sections on Howard University, or "Mecca," as Coates calls it. They made me think how terrific it would be to have a Howard novel, as Brideshead Revisited is an Oxford novel or This Side of Paradise a Princeton novel. And Coates is the person who ought to write it.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Lisa Robertson, _Rousseau's Boat_ and revisiting _R's Boat_

CHAPBOOKS REMIND ME a bit of the era of the EP era, and the recurring possibility that one or more of the songs on an EP might reappear on the band's next LP--were there grounds for resenting the band's expecting you to buy the same song(s) twice? I usually felt better--rewarded for my loyalty and attention--when no duplication occurred. On the other hand, was there a problem with having "Talk of the Town" on the second Pretenders album?  Not really. It sounded great both places.

Three of the four poems in Rousseau's Boat appear again in R's Boat, but it was worth revisiting, I decided. For one thing, there were a few revisions to ponder. For another, looking at the chapbook made some aspects of its successor's project more apparent, particularly its minuet with the idea of lyric subjectivity. Rousseau's Boat has a somewhat higher concentration (my impression; I did not tabulate) of  first person statements than R's Boat, and so it became more noticeable that some seem to be distinctly referring to Robertson ("It was the spring of my thirty-fifth year"), some seem deliberately fantastic ("I had the body of a woman as far as the hips; below sprang the foreparts of three dogs"), and quite a few could apply to almost anyone or even anything ("I'm just a beam of light or something").

The book conjures an "I," but you don't know that it's an "I" that has a name and a postal code. At the same time, it's not an "I" that seems utterly detached from the world of birth certificates and street addresses.

Both volumes have the same final poem, which seems to be comparing the text to a dropped scarf--and having read the poem in the chapbook, then the full volume, then the chapbook again, the penny finally dropped for me, and I thought, oh, as one can choose to drop a scarf, and it will take a certain, perhaps beautiful shape that one has participated in the creation of even though one did not foresee or design it, so one could compile a text of first person statements using some arbitrary or aleatory principles that somehow actually did approximate autobiography in some unforeseen, unintentional way--

Like the negligent fall of a scarf
Now I occupy the design.

--so now I should really read R's Boat again. Or get out Extended Play and listen to "Talk of the Town."

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Lisa Robertson, _R's Boat_

EVEN THOUGH THIS begins in a distinctly Robertsonian vein--we have a section that might be a dialogue between speakers only partly attending to what the other is saying (first-person statements in roman type alternate with first-person statements in italic type), followed by a section that might be a dialogue between two voices, but in this case two voices within the same mind--by the time I reached the third ("The Present") and fourth ("A Cuff") sections, I kept thinking of H. D.

More precisely, I kept thinking of Trilogy, where we get fine-grained representation of the phenomena of a particular moment of a particular place on a particular day, but at the same time a deep mythological perspective (via, as usual with H.D., Greek myth, but also Egyptian myth and the gospels), and behind that a pressing external crisis (e.g., the Blitz in "The Walls Do Not Fall").

The parallel is not all that close, I admit. Robertson does mention Lucretius, Macrobius, and Babylonian coverlets, but does not convey the sense, as H.D. sometimes does, that these ancients are more present to her than the present. Contemporary anxieties press ("If I reason I am not the state's body") but diffusedly. So what is it?

Something in the voice? The sound of I-have-to-figure-this-out? The evocation of the past in the section called "Utopia" (actually more reminiscent of The Gift than of Trilogy), its statement, "This is one part of the history of a girl's mind"? The willingness, in the section titled "Palinode," to cast a cold eye on the whole preceding undertaking?

Certainly that last one. The best modernists were already post-modernists insofar as they sensed and responded to the fissures in their own project: Four Quartets, Stanzas in Meditation, Drafts and Fragments, and (to my mind) Trilogy.

Or maybe it's when she writes, "I'm not done with myth yet".

Or "Form is not cruel".

But you really ought to read this because, however much she reminds me of H.D., she nonetheless always sounds like herself:

Whatever girl dares to read just one page is already a lost girl, but she can't blame it on this book--she was alreday ruined.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Greil Marcus, _The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs_

NO LIGHT CLAIM on my part to say this is Marcus's best book, because Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces, and Invisible Republic were force fields that profoundly altered the trajectory of my listening habits, but his best book it may be, simply because of the amount of ground it can survey without being even all that long, eleven ordinary-length essays, the whole thing coming under 300 pages.

The title is apt even though it may mislead the inattentive. These are not rock and roll's ten best songs, ten most famous songs, ten most influential songs--they are reasonably well-known songs, some were big hits, but there is no "Satisfaction," "Like a Rolling Stone," or anything else likely to wind up on a VH1 countdown. Instead, we have ten core samples, ten lightning-in-a-bottle moments when some gaggle of young musicians in a recording studio discovered something in a song that until then maybe not even they knew was there.

Marcus's ability to discern these moments and then write of them evocatively is uncanny. And unique, I daresay. And then there is his ability to contextualize them by drawing on an extraordinarily deep and sensitive understanding of the history of the genre.

I can imagine someone glancing at the table of contents, discovering with dismay that no song by the Beatles or Bob Dylan is included, and giving the book pass.  That person would miss out on three essays-within-essays--one on the Beatles' ferocious cover of "Money," one on their briefly re-discovering an old joy as they play Buddy Holly's "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" during the slow-motion trainwreck of the Get Back sessions, one on the pinnacle that is "A Day in the Life"--that are altogether more powerfully insightful than any of the enormous, exhaustive Beatles tomes that occupy several sagging shelves in my house.  Same for Dylan, the Stones, the Pistols, etc--all the people you think ought to come in to the discussion do, eventually, in unforeseen and always illuminating ways.

And of course Marcus knows, as anyone ought to know, that the living line of the music after the 1960s passed not through the Eagles, Bon Jovi, or any other of the innumerable platinum-selling pretenders, but through Joy Division, the Brains, and...yes...Christian Marclay.

Even the footnotes are better than most books about rock and roll.

That eleventh essay? It imagines the career Robert Johnson might have had had he survived whatever killed him in 1938.  

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ben Marcus, _Leaving the Sea_

TOOK MY SWEET time getting to this, partly because I had read about half of them already, partly because, you know, one worries...Marcus has been one of my favorite writers, perhaps even my very favorite among living writers of fiction, since The Age of Wire and String, and his becoming someone published in Harpers and The New Yorker carries with it a little of the anxiety I associate with hearing, decades ago, that the Replacements had signed  with Sire, or Sonic Youth with Geffen--the anxiety that Something Precious Will Inevitably Be Lost in this sweaty congress with the bitch goddess Success....

Leaving the Sea relieves me of that anxiety, however, I have to say. The Age of Wire and String, for all its deliciously bewildering strangeness, had hidden within it a tiny, realistic suburban family tragedy (the loss of the brother, the remoteness of the father), just as the suburban family tragedy of The Flame Alphabet had hidden within it the old deliciously bewildering strangeness (e.g., at every appearance of our old friend Thompson). The aspect of Marcus you notice first has shifted, but there is still a persuasive continuity in his work.

In the most nearly-apparently-normal stories here (the first four), that strangeness breaks upon the reader in the recurring trick of having the point-of-view character seem relatively ordinary, normal, and harmless in the narration, while the other characters approach and interact with the point-of-view character as if he were a dog with a reputation for biting, possibly rabid to boot. Their caution/fear is never entirely accounted for, creating an internal incongruity quite a bit like the family-drama-mediated-through-obscure-technical-vocabulary effects Marcus made his own in his early fiction.

Consequently, the older work here ("The Father Costume" and "Origins of the Family,"), with the old strangeness ("If you possess the long, white tubing instruments meant to prevent people from squeezing through small holes and disappearing, you have boning material, and you can begin to secure people to your team, insuring them against sudden departure"), can be set alongside the more recent, superficially more conventional stories ("From across the room, he saw his cousin Carla") without a terrible jar.

And then the volume wraps up with a workplace anomie story ("The Moors") that can stand comparison to The Pale King.

All of which convinces me anew that Ben Marcus is the real deal. The Ben Marcus is dead.  Long live the Ben Marcus!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Anthony Doerr, _All the Light We Cannot See_

GOOD LORD, DID I really not blog even once in August? Apparently not. How did a whole month just vanish on me like that? Disturbing.


This is last year's Pulitzer winner for fiction, as you probably know. Its main setting is the walled port city of Saint-Malo during its bombardment by Allied forces in the late summer of 1944, a few months after D-Day, its main characters Werner, a young German military radio operator, and Marie-Laure, a blind French girl of sixteen or so, living with her uncle after she and her father left Paris just ahead of the German army in 1940.

The larger part of the novel, though, is set earlier, as we learn through flashbacks how Werner and Marie-Laure came to be in Saint-Malo at this dire and terrifying moment in its history.

What I liked: both Marie-Laure and Werner are appealing. Marie-Laure's relationships with her father, her uncle, and the novels of Jules Verne are affecting; Werner's preternatural skills with machinery land him in an elite Nazi academy (highly reminiscent of the similar institution in Michel Tournier's Roi des Aulnes) and involve him in atrocities in the Ukraine and elsewhere, but he seems decent, at bottom, though less morally courageous than his sister or his friend Frederick.

Doerr tells his story in very brief present-tense episodes, most of only two or three pages--quick, revealing snapshots of his characters at telling moments. This keeps a fairly long (500+ pages) book moving along nicely.

Doerr has a gift for lyrical prose.

Doors soar away from their frames. Bricks transmute into powder. Great distending clouds of chalk and earth and granite spout into the sky. All twelve bombers have already turned and climbed and realigned high above the Channel before roof slates blown into the air finish falling into the streets.

One could object, maybe, to aerial destruction between aestheticized this way, but he gets some striking effects here--how silent the description is, for one thing, and the delay in revealing the cause of the amazing phenomena of the first three sentences.

What I did not much like: Werner and Marie-Laure have to cross paths, I suppose, and that crossing has to involve something that matters...but to have this occur due to a MacGuffinesque priceless diamond (Marie-Laure's father is a museum locksmith and...oh, never mind) and a Hollywoodishly villainous Wehrmacht officer...it all seemed a bit too screenplay-ready, I think. The guy wires of contrivance were all too visible. The ending is at least not as syrupy as it could have been.

Put me in mind of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain--big award, carefully plotted, well-written, cinematically adaptable, but perhaps not likely to linger in the memory for long. We'll see, I guess.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Dawn Martin Lundy, _Discipline_

HER SECOND BOOK, and quite different from her first. A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering gravitated towards the jarring, disjunctive, and elliptical formally, towards anger and grief tonally, but Discipline often sounds calm, purposeful, elegant. Not that it lacks for the jarring and disjunctive, exactly, but there is a stateliness to some of these poems--p. 15, for instance--that feels years and worlds away from the verging-on-inarticulacy of AGoM/AMoG. Even the trauma, so alive and trembling in the first book, seems almost stilled: "Finally, all is quiet. No more weeping and begging. I waited all my life for my father to die and when he did I felt empty."

Most of Discipline is prose poems, tonally varied but somehow feeling very unified, rather like Jennifer Moxley's The Line. Ironically, writing in prose liberates the lyrical impulse that was often blocked or resisted in AGoM/AMoG. The rhythms are freer and more audible here, the syntax more expansive, the imagery more fantastical, so the prose poems sound more like "poems," so to speak, than the texts of the first book did.

But one sees connections, too. Subjecthood and identity remain urgent topics: "Always the I is fissure recklessly yearning for its whole self sense of wholeness like a potato." The gender conundra have not gotten any simpler of resolution, either: "I realize the other women in the house think I am not a woman who belongs in the house."

Yet somehow, while the past is still all back there, its power has diminished.

There is this place where the I is am now and there is no place. Some say that it might all emanate from a place of youth as if a place of youth is the original place, but I do not believe this. That this me that might have also happened in some original place, but there must have been a me there. Or maybe I dreamed it. Maybe this is all there is.

For most of us, chronology creates priority, the past is the inflexible iron determinant of the present--but is it? Isn't there also a kind of radical autonomy to the present? Are we never anything but revisions of our childhood selves? It is startling and a bit refreshing for someone to say, "I do not believe this."

This passage is followed by a short poem about pennies. "Do not smell them," the poet writes. "Do not taste their rough, dirty, metallic favor, their / hinting of some other world." The penny has been places, it has a history, even an investigable history if we are willing to smell and taste it, but the penny's functionality in the present has not much to do with that past. Should we focus on where the penny has been, or is that to miss the point?

At the same time, you can tell from the imagery that the poet has tasted a penny or two.

Marilynne Robinson, _Home_

HOUSEKEEPING IS ON my personal list of Great American Novels, and Gilead is not far behind, so I bought this the week it hit the bookstores...got about 90 pages in and just stopped. It was not doing a thing for me.

With a new Robinson out, I decided, well, really better to finish it, since the new one is set once again in Gilead, Iowa, among the families of a couple of its mainline Protestant clergy.

It turned out to be worth resuming--it's a slow build, even slower than Housekeeping and Gilead (which was part of their appeal for me, ultimately), but it does build.

The events of Home align with one of the plots of Gilead: prodigal Jack Boughton's return after a lengthy absence to his childhood home, an absence that has included alcoholism, prison, and--redeemingly--love and marriage. But his wife is African-American, a fact he cannot quite bring himself to mention to his father or even his sister. He does tell the Rev. John Ames, near the end of Gilead, and it's one of that book's most powerful moments. So, for most of Home, we know something about Jack that his family does not.

This is interesting, but a bit frustrating as well. We want Jack's father and sister to know this about him. We want to see what happens when they learn the truth. But it does not come to pass.

A large part of the reason I bogged down with this novel back in 2008, I suspect, is that the whole novel is narrated from the point of view of Jack's younger sister Glory, and as you might expect from her circumstances (unmarried Midwestern clergyman's daughter in the 1950s) she is an Olympic gold medallist in self-abnegation. As such, even though you keep wanting her to assert herself a bit, or to get Jack and his father to square up and really deal with each other, that sort of thing is just not going to happen.

Since Jack is the prodigal, part of me was wondering whether Glory was going to step into the role of the loyal child, protest the warm reception given the straying child...but Jack's father slays no fatted calves, and Glory has nothing to protest, really. She loves her father, loves her brother, has ended up without not much of a life beyond the two of them...even so, she is not going to force any issue with either of them.

There are people like that. But it's hard to make them fictionally appealing. John Williams's Stoner maybe, Bernanos's Journal d'un Curé de Campagne...it can be done. But Glory never quite gets a chance to step up to the plate, so to speak. Well... she does eventually (and inadvertently) learn that Jack's wife is African-American, and she handles it well, but Jack is long gone, she'll likely never see him again...as I said, this is a bit frustrating.

Still...no denying that the reader does begin to care very much what happens to these characters.  Especially once the dying Rev. Boughton's inhibitions start to crumble, and he starts saying exactly what's on his mind. So the novel succeeds in a few important ways.

Well. On to Lila.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Dawn Lundy Martin, _A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering_

I HAVE TO thank the poet Jamey Brunton (whose website is worth a visit) for mentioning this poet to me.

The title neatly raises the issue of whether we should be more mindful of the poems' content (their matter) or the processes by which they manifest themselves (their gathering) and plainly enough indicates that we better be mindful of both.

Identity is part of the matter; Martin is black ("From Benin to this fractured exile") and female ("What is it like to feel female?").  Some kind of terrifying personal history (not necessarily hers, I suppose, but it feels real) glows radioactively in the background through the recurring figure of a traumatized girl.

At the same time, questions of identity and history keep turning into questions of language and form: "He was what we might call--would most likely call--an ugly, black man." The sentence dislocates our attention in a revealing way, from the person being described to our own practices and patterns of describing, reminding us that neither the man's ugliness nor his blackness is a simple natural fact, but a kind of constructed consensus, with its own hazards of probability.

And other hazards. Nothing is simple in this speaker's attempt to name her circumstances:

Believe that one travels in articulation, is heavy with language, is
hunted, breathes and hears black bitch and black ass in the literal field of
the carnivorous

Syntax and its promise to organize fact into sequence hardly helps pin down identity, as one easily slips from subject case to object case, from active voice verbs to passive voice ones, indicative to subjunctive:

I happened. Someone happened. We might call it a happening--
breathing, living beings gathered--
brought together as if drunk--as if unbroken,
as if able to speak against fraught with--washed over.

"Blackface Caricature in Thirteen" and "Negrotizing in Five; or, How to Write a Black Poem" pose similarly pointed questions about what we decide to call texts, or what we are likely to call them, and the ways linguistic form sometimes gives us seemingly unbreakable instructions that disable as well as enable. Hence the volume's constant experimentation with form.

The other book this one most reminded me of is a novel, actually--McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing--due in part to the theme of traumatized girl, certainly, but also because of the two books' shared willingness to break form and invent new form in order to get at what needs getting at. ("Unspeaking" is the title of one poem, as if language and form have to be undone, rewound, reinvented before the necessary speaking can occur.)

There is even a moment a bit like the implied suicide at the end of McBride's novel here--"There was once a time when the bridge ended and the girl leapt"--but there are a couple of moments of hope, too, as in "Fire Island": "She unremembered here." Not forgot, exactly, but something like the relaxing of a tight, angry knot of pain. Occasionally we feel a hope that all this effort will pay off:

          To pull up from the layers of muck and
shit some utterance, some something that does not stitch me pinup
doll, black, rabid, black snatch.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Joshua Cohen, _Four New Messages_

LLL IS A long-time advocate of Joshua Cohen's fiction, so with the big new one (from a major publisher, too) just landed, it was high time we got around to this, published by the ever-reliable Graywolf in 2012.  Four longish short stories, the fourth virtually a novella.

What we noticed:

A couple have to do with the impact of the internet. "Emission" is about a drug dealer--or maybe more of a sub-dealer, as all he does is handle deliveries--who is plagued by a libelous story posted by an apparently popular blogger. The fourth and longest story, "Sent," is about the world of internet porn, specifically the made-in-the-former-Soviet-bloc kind, and its power over young men's minds. To this extent, the stories here are anticipatory of the focus of the new one.

Three seem to be about blocked writers. "Emission" has a frame story in which the drug dealer describes his difficulties to a young blocked writer who is in Berlin failing to finish his novel. The blocked writer in "McDonald's" is blocked because he has reached a point in the fiction he is composing where he wants to use the fast-food franchise named in the title as a setting, but has some deep inhibitions against both using its real name and inventing a transparent fictional name. The blocked writer in "The College Borough" hates his current gig of teaching creative writing in the Midwest until he hits upon the idea of having his students build an on-campus replica of the Flatiron Building.

The two above themes, taken together, indirectly call to mind DeLillo's Mao II, in which the fictional novelist Bill Gray wonders whether terrorists have completely surpassed novelists in their ability to reconfigure the collective imagination. Is there still something important for novelists to do? Is fiction paralyzed if it can neither name nor avoid naming McDonald's? The sub-literate blogger in "Emission" has more clout than most literary fiction writers; the replica of the Flatiron Building may be a symbol of the old complex mimetic realism novel, a kind of architectural folly that serves on purpose except satisfying the blocked writer's nostalgia--although the creative students do at least learn marketable skills, like roofing. Internet pornography, too, is a domain whose reach goes well beyond that of ambitious literary fiction.

What I'm really wondering about, though, is the disappearance of the Jewish themes and general yiddishkeit that were so much a part of Cohen's previous work, especially Witz. Maybe Witz took yiddishkeit as far as it could go? I find myself hoping traces linger in The Book of Numbers, though.  The title alone suggests that has to be some of it, at least--it's one of the books of the Torah, after all. We'll see.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Wilton Barnhardt,_ Lookaway, Lookaway_

IF YOU, LIKE me, have a standing policy against reading novels that have embossed slip covers, you would likely pass this one up--or, you might look at the cover and think, "Having successfully dodged Fried Green Tomatoes, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and The Help, why in hell would I pick this up?"

Well, let me tell you.

The first chapter is about entering college student Jerilyn Johnston and her first week at Chapel Hill in 2003. Earnhardt uncannily evokes the sorority rush world of 2003 from the point of view of an aspirant--this chapter is everything I Am Charlotte Simmons should have been and was not.

I was ready to settle in for a whole novel of Jerilyn, but the second chapter is written from the point of view of her uncle Gaston, a formerly ambitious novelist who has become the author of a series of disposable but wildly commercial historical novels set in the Civil War era. Gaston has made pots of money, a good part of which he is drinking away. He is witty, bitter, conflicted, occasionally self-loathing, and a great example of a character you would never want to meet but is tremendous fun to read about.

I was ready to settle in with Gaston, too, but the next chapter whisks us to the point of view of Jerene Johnston, Jerilyn's mother, a flower of Southern womanhood with a resolve of steel, who must deploy her psycho-social resources--and they are formidable--to get Jerilyn through a potentially very damaging scrape. Women like Jerene are fatally easy to satirize, and Barnhardt mixes in a bit of that, but he also gets us to see that Jerene Johnston is smart, possesses a real dignity, and can do what needs to be done.  You gotta love her.

And so it goes--each new chapter gives us the point of view of another member of the family and its extensions, and each one turns out to be flawed but fascinating, persuasively imagined, possessed of a distinctive voice. And yet with all this non-stop p.o.v.-hopping, Barnhardt also maintains a clear and richly-developed through-line of plot.

It's a tour de force. So don't let that embossing fool you. You can't judge...well, you know.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Lisa Robertson, _The Weather_

ONE CAN LAZILY slip into assuming that avant-garde practice automatically means confrontational, transgressive, shocking, and so on, but Robertson's work goes to show that it ain't necessarily so. She can be tough-minded (see The Men), but she forgoes jaggedness and hectoring and instead calmly, gently (but authoritatively) puts you in a place you do not remember ever being in before. Some psychedelics slap you upside the head, turn you inside out, scour you...others just take you there. Robertson just takes you there.

The Weather (2001) has seven prose (well, at least unlineated) sections titled after the days of the week, each section a few pages long. Sentences and phrases recur with small variations, images and rhythms repeating, but not exactly... quite a bit like the weather, actually, in that any day's weather is quite a bit like other days' weather without being perfectly identical to that of any particular day. Each section is its own climate du jour. From "Monday":

Bright and hot. Flesh and hue. Our skies are inventions, durations, discoveries, quotas, forgeries, fine and grand. Fine and grand. Fresh and bright. Heavenly and bright. The day pours out space, a light red roominess, bright and fresh. Bright and oft. Bright and fresh. Sparkling and wet.

Succeeding days bring new observations, sometimes breaking into assertion--"When you're on the sea, nothing else is happening" ("Thursday"), "Pop groups say love phonemes" ("Saturday")--the assertions breaking up and forming new wholes, new weathers, as the day goes along.

Between these prose sections are six poems, or six sections of a poem, called "Residence at C---," which is braided with diary poem, sometimes offering explanatory commentary ("My purpose here is to advance into / the sense of weather, the lesson of / the weather"), sometimes additional observation ("The sky is / mauve lucite"), sometimes additional assertion ("Who's / the King? Not I").

"Residence at C---" both creates form for the book, simply by not being the diary poem while being in dialogue with it, and illuminatingly comments on the very idea of form: "Sometimes I want a corset like / to harden me or garnish."

Hmm. Is form a hardening, or is it a garnish? Does it chemically transform the substance of the content into something more enduring, or does it simply decorate the surface? Robertson goes on--

as the domestic emotions elucidate
themselves a sea of mist
exists so strangely side by side
the potent mould of anarchy and scorn.

What common ground can there be between that sea of mist and that potent mould, the one seeking but to wander and expand, the other eager to contain and shape? And yet--"so strangely"--they do co-exist. Weather seems to be pattern and chaos at one and the same time--people, too, for that matter, and perhaps poems too--at least the good ones, like Robertson's.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Patricia Lockwood, _Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals_

A COLLEAGUE SPOTTED me reading this and asked me what it was.

"It's Patricia Lockwood's second book." This rang no bells. "It has 'Rape Joke' in it."

This got a nod of recognition.

"I haven't read it," he said, "but I've read about it."

Read about it?

I've decided this is an encouraging sign. If people are reading about contemporary poetry, who knows, their curiosity may get the better of them and they will perhaps actually read some of the poetry itself.

Motherland Fatherland Homosexuals is recognizably the work of the poet who wrote Balloon Pop Outlaw Black but adds some new moves, not the least powerful of which is the directness and candor of "Rape Joke."

Like Ariana Reines and Lara Glenum, Lockwood combines an avant-leaning poetic with third wave feminism. Poetically, she often works by seeing what happens out of an unlikely connection, seemingly generated by some Rousselian randomness. Politically, one of the conjoined terms often comes from the domain of pornography or some other variety of the commodification of sexuality. So we have poems that contemplate Canada, Bambi, taxidermy, and Emily Dickinson at the same time that they ponder flicking tongues, final hungry kisses, gang bangs, and tit-pics.

We wind up an awfully long way from Adrienne Rich or Eavan Boland or Carol Duffy or anything that would wind up on the greeting cards sold in women's bookstores. It's scarier, funnier, weirder, but perhaps truer to the contradictions of experience in some ways.

The book works because of Lockwood's ingenuity, the abundance of her imagination in exploring and constructing something out of the constraints in which she places the poem. The miniature imaginary worlds she makes out of these unlikely conjunctions are, on the one hand, ludicrously unreal and unmappable, while on the other hand being capable of seeming like snapshots of our world taken from an unflattering but terribly revealing angle.

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals is worth reading as well as being read about.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Roberto Calasso, _Tiepolo Pink_

I HAVE NEXT to no interest in the 18th century Italian painter Giambattista Tiepolo, but I'll follow a favorite writer anywhere. I even read David Foster Wallace's book on Georg Cantor….

Calasso is a kind of scholar-at-large, I guess. He does not seem to have any academic affiliation or speciality or even field--he has written about literature, painting, politics, mythology, and religion with equal finesse. He seems extraordinarily well-read but carries it lightly; he's the perfect example of writerly sprezzatura, able to write gracefully and illuminatingly about any topic to which he turns. We in the U. S. A. have no one like him. (Sontag came close.)

Calasso emphasizes that Tiepolo comes from the era right before painters were expected to scorn patronage and instead fiercely, uncompromisingly pursue their own vision, etc. Tiepolo was grateful to his patrons and prided himself on skillful execution of whatever their program was; he was a pro, we could say, in the last cultural moment before that became fatally uncool.

But Calasso also makes the case that Tiepolo left his particular sensibility right below the surface in everything he did. At the heart of this argument is Calasso's careful disentangling, in the second of the book's three long essays, of the iconological puzzles in the series of etchings Tiepolo titled Capricci and Scherzi. Calasso finds Tiepolo had his own program after all, discernible, once we know what it is, in the mythological paintings, the Antony and Cleopatra paintings, the famous Four Continents frescos.

How persuasive would any of this be to an actual art historian? No idea. Wallace's Cantor book imparted to me all sorts of notions about calculus that, in later conversation with actual mathematicians, turned out to be eccentric.

But that hardly bothers me--reading Calasso is too great a pleasure to relinquish, whatever snorts he may excite in professional academics.  For instance, loved his revision of Walter Pater on the Mona Lisa when he writes of the beautiful, fair-haired young woman that shows up in painting after painting by Tiepolo--

Four years after Palazzo Labia, Tiepolo's Cleopatra moved to Würzburg. She became Beatrice of Burgundy and she had to marry Frederick Barbarossa. She did not change her hairdo, with large pearls braided into her hair, worn drawn back at the forehead and gathered up into a sumptuous bun. She knew perfectly well what suited her best. As for colors, she stuck to the golden yellow she had already used in various rehearsals for the meeting with Antony. And above all she couldn't forgo the tall ribbed ruff, which encircled her neck so well and plunged down as far as her bosom. Even though this time, kneeling before the altar, she could not leave her breasts bare, as happened at the banquet with Antony. As for the rest, she knows she is the very same woman who had been Cleopatra and one day would be Venice--and, centuries before, she had been Pharaoh's daughter who saved Moses from the waters., All these appearances suit her equally well and are simultaneous, all refer to the same full and opulent phase of her beauty. There is only one detail she cannot do without: she always wears a choker around her neck, a single string of large pearls. But she does change her earrings: at her wedding with Barbarossa there reappear two large baroque pearls, which she had not used since Antony's day. Who knew if someone would notice? By then, a lot of time had gone by.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Kate Atkinson, _Life after Life_

THIS WAS OUR June selection in the book club. Atkinson is a best-selling novelist who also gets shortlisted for prestigious prizes (the Women's Prize for Fiction, in this novel's case), so she seemed worth a shot.

Atkinson is swift and skillful in establishing her premise without any clumsy exposition--the premise being that, as in Groundhog Day or Run, Lola, Run, her protagonist gets do-overs, though not for a particular day or a particular episode, but rather for her whole life. It's not quite like classic reincarnation into a series of lives, though, as she keeps starting over on the same day, 11 February 1910, always as the third child, second daughter of an upper-middle-class English family.

Ursula Todd dies within minutes in her first go (cord wrap), but in successive attempts keeps managing to live a little longer. It takes her three attempts to get past the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918-19, but she eventually does.

Ursula's internalizations of the lessons she is learning in order to live a little longer seem unconscious at first, just impulses. For example, she has an urge, origin unknown, to push a maid down some stairs, and this accident prevents the maid from going up to London for the November 1918 victory celebrations, thus she does not bring the flu back to the house.

As her attempted lives accumulate, though, Ursula begins to get more precise ideas of the best way to use her years, and so arrives at the plan of living her life so as to be in a position to assassinate Hitler before his becoming German Chancellor in 1933, thus preventing World War II.

The assassination attempt occurs in the very first chapter, before we know anything of the premise of the novel, posing a puzzle for the reader. How are we going to get to this scene when Ursula keeps dying various ways without ever getting to Germany? Well, we do get there, and so we have a repeat of the assassination near the very end of the book...except the two accounts of the assassination attempt have different dates, one month apart. So she must have tried at least twice. Did she kill Hitler either time?  Did killing him prevent the war, or not?

Actually, we never find out. I found that a little frustrating. Nor does Atkinson make any attempt to explain whether the lives all co-exist in some sort of multi-verse way, or one of the lives becomes the keeper. (Perhaps it's just as well left unexplained, as it is hard to imagine what a satisfying explanation would sound like.) In at least one of the lives, Ursula's beloved younger brother survives the war, at least, which is gratifying. We also get an intriguing hint that other members of her family can do the same do-over trick.

But what I particularly liked about the novel was the theme that our choices make a difference. Even though we do not get mulligans on our lives, we do get choices, and the idea that it behooves us to take them seriously lends some gravity to the book's premise.

Jack Gilbert, _Collected Poems_ (2)

HAVING ENJOYED MY tour through the collected Gilbert, I started wondering how active an influence he is in contemporary American poetry. He never seemed to be making any effort to influence; after a splashy arrival as a Yale Younger Poet and (as Carla Blumenkranz has reminded us) one of Gordon Lish's protégées, he tended to lie low. One gets the feeling that poets of succeeding generations read him, though. At least, his name comes up when I talk to under-40s--not as often as, say, Jack Spicer's, but more often than, say, Hayden Carruth's.

But I wouldn't say I hear Gilbert in the poetry of the under-40s, the way one can often hear Tate or Ashbery.

Still...is there a way to be an inaudible, invisible influence? There are great poets who make terrible influences--Yeats, Eliot, Lowell, Berryman, Dickinson, Hopkins--because their voices are so distinctive that one can't sound like them without sounding too like them, I think, without seeming to be too deeply within their shadow.

There are other poets--I am going to go with Elizabeth Bishop as prime example here, but I think George Herbert as well, George Oppen...maybe even Pound, odd as that sounds--from whom one can learn a great deal about poetic energy, whose tactics are acquirable, whose example can be profitably absorbed without overwhelming the influenced poet's voice.

I think Gilbert might be one of those.  He does, as David Orr mentioned in his view of this book, have his favorite stage properties, the sea, the moon, light, but these are hardly exclusive trademarks; likewise, his tendency to make pronouncements is widely enough shared that dropping in a few "We..." statements wouldn't strike anyone as borrowing from Gilbert.

A lot of what he typically does well are just good moves--the surprising turn that ends up making perfect sense, the quick hop from colloquial looseness to terminological precision, the balance of honesty and tact. You could learn a lot from Gilbert without ever too sharply resembling him.  I hope poets keep reading him.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Jack Gilbert, _Collected Poems_ (1)

I THINK I bought this about the time he died--it hadn't been out long. I had read Refusing Heaven about the time it came out and had vague plans to read some of his other poetry, but had not gotten around to it, so a collected edition plus his passing seemed to be a fitting occasion.  I actually opened it about a year ago and just got to the last page today.

A few years ago, Cole Swenson and David St. John published an anthology called American Hybrid, collecting examples of narrative/representational poets who were capable of going to their left towards avant-garde experimentation, and avant-garde poets who were capable of going to their right towards narration and description. Gilbert was not in the anthology--it mainly included poets younger than he--but he might have deserved a place in it, I think.

His main orientation is traditional enough, certainly. His rhythms recall iambic pentameter (without strictly following it).  His syntax is largely conventional. Fidelity to his experiences and perceptions seems to matter: "I embarrass myself working so hard / to get it right even a little" ("Doing Poetry"). He is always ready to sum everything up in a sweeping third-person statement. "Our lives happen between / the memorable," for instance ("Highlights and Interstices"), or "We go hungry / amid the giant granaries / this world is" ("The Danger of Wisdom").

This last tendency is the most dated thing about his work, perhaps. He'll go vatic on you at the drop of a hat, sometimes in ways that make you want to ask who exactly this supposedly all-inclusive "we" is. Too often, it only means men roughly his own age and background. Women seem to be another kind of creature entirely.

Thing is, he can also make fun of this very device. "Music Is in the Piano Only When It Is Played" stacks one "we" statement atop another for twenty lines, to a point past annoyance, then Gilbert shifts gears abruptly--

He continues past the nunnery to the old villa
where he will sit on the terrace with her, their sides
touching. In the quiet that is the music of that place,
which is the difference between silence and windlessness.

Suddenly all the "we" statements are revealed as an older man showing off a bit, unable to shut up, until his surroundings finally get through to him and he falls quiet.

Sometimes the shifts are so quick and so apparently unmotivated that he seems to be approximating some aleatory process, or at least not bothering about linearity at all. "A Man in Black and White," for instance, takes so many sharp switchbacks that it could almost be Ashbery. Then there is the way the name "Pittsburgh" (where he grew up) gradually stops sounding like the name of a place and more like a kind of being:

          Is it because
Pittsburgh is still tangled in him that he
has the picture on his wall of God's head
torn apart by jungle roots?

But a poet does not have to be avant-garde to be worth reading, after all. Gilbert is a master of his own music and stayed true to his vision. What else can one ask? And then there are the times when the sweeping "we" statements break in on you as all too true, maybe even helpful:

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

("A Brief for the Defense")

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jonathan Chait, "Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say"

HOW FAR BEHIND the curve am I?  So far that I only last week learned about Chait's "much-discussed" piece, which appeared in January.  Katie Ryder mentioned it in her Nation review of the new collection of Renata Adler's non-fiction.

So I read it. He has a point, I suppose. Self-righteousness is always annoying. Being self-righteous about other people's self-righteousness can be a bit annoying, too.

The only thing in the piece that really surprised me, though, was that Chait thinks the first era of P.C. ended in 1992, with the election of Bill Clinton. What?

As someone who has been working on a campus continuously since 1992, I would say the kind of attention people were being asked to pay to their own speech and behavior circa 1985-1990 just became the new normal. Some nuances have been added since 1990, and will probably continue to be added, but everyone from university presidents on down got clued in over the last 25 years and simply adjusted. The old P.C. didn't go away; it just became the new prevailing etiquette, and no one was all that terribly inconvenienced.

Which goes to show that the P.C. advocates were not asking that much, I would say. Likewise it will take a while for people to get used to fine-tuned ways of referring to gender identification nuances. But they will, and in a while it will seem natural enough. So why get one's knickers in a twist, Mr. Chait?

Even the "micro-aggression" concept is actually useful, I think. I do worry about what will happen once our evangelical Christian students get ahold of it, though. They're on the receiving end of their share.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Leslie Jamison, _The Empathy Exams_

EVER SINCE MONTAIGNE, it has been the essayist's prerogative to be concerned first and foremost with his or her own circumstances and experiences, and most contemporary essayists take the fullest possible advantage of it, even seeing their personal history as a synecdoche of the story of their generation, of their nation, of civilization.

Jamison (in this somewhat reminiscent of Orwell and Didion) takes the relatively novel approach of being interested in the lives of others: people who have (think they have) the possibly-real-possibly-not Morgellons disease, people who go on insanely arduous endurance runs, people who used to go on endurance runs but are in prison for slack observance of mortgage regulations (this guy is in jail, and everyone from Goldman Sachs is free?), the West Memphis Three.

She is interested not only in the lives of others, but also in the nature of the interest we take in the lives of others, hence the theme of empathy that inhabits the whole book as well as the title essay. It's a phenomenon she can subject to an unusual degree of honesty and scrutiny. Of the documentaries about the West Memphis Three she writes:

...some part of me enjoyed these films. I didn't enjoy what was happening, but I enjoyed who I was while I was watching  them. It offered evidence of my own inclination toward empathy.

The book has two pieces (its first and final essays) that might become classics. In "The Empathy Exams," Jamison writes of being a medical actor, pretending to be a person with certain symptoms to test medical students both on their diagnostic skills and on their ability to summon up what will register as genuine human feelings for their patients. In other words, she performs in order to elicit a certain kind of performance, and in this instance the audience gets graded on how well they responded to the performance. This is all interesting enough--when Jamison juxtaposes it with the careful attention she gives to her boyfriend's response to her real ailments, we end up with one of the most memorable essays I've read in years.

"Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain" exemplifies the book's ability to combine self-examination with imaginative apprehension of others' lives. Jamison has enough of her own pain to keep an essay rolling--eating disorder and cutting when young, a bad breakup, getting hit in the face hard enough to suffer a broken nose (ingeniously narrated through the lens of Propp in "Morphology of a Hit"). But Jamison is just as (more, perhaps) interested in how other women have represented their pain: Lucy Grealy, Anne Carson, and quite a few of her friends.

Jamison is of a generation that grew up with representations of female pain. "I grew up under the spell of damaged sirens," she notes, "Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco, Björk, Kate Bush, Mazzy Star." Honesty and candor empower, but is there a point of diminishing returns? "How do we represent female pain without producing a culture in which this pain has been fetishized to the point of fantasy or imperative?" Good question--and one we need to think about, since, as she points out, a truth spoken so often that people stop hearing it remains nonetheless true, and in need of being spoken.

"Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain" helped me think about Girls and Sheila Heti's How Can a Person Be?, which she discusses, as well as Ariana Reines and A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, which she does not but which I hope she someday will.

Really good book. Keep it going, Graywolf.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sarah Braunstein, _The Sweet Relief of Missing Children_

THE CONNECTION IS a bit remote, but Sarah Braunstein's novel kept reminding me of Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, which our book club read quite a few years ago.  In Kingsolver's novel, set in Appalachia, the narrative keeps switching among three different groups of characters; only once you are well into the novel do you have the information you need to understand how the three groups are related. The narrative strategy dovetails nicely with Kingsolver's environmental theme: things are more interconnected than we at first understand, and it takes a lot of time and observation to understand how a whole system works together.

One of the missing children in The Sweet Relief of Missing Children is Paul, bright but eccentric son of an out-of-control mother; as a teenager, he decides his best chance is to run away. In following chapters, we meet a variety of other characters with other thematically parallel child-parent issues but no other apparent connection to Paul--until the right detail drops, and we see how their stories intersect his.  It's a novel with a lot of nice "oh!' moments, comparable to those in Prodigal Summer when an unguessed-at relation pops into focus.

The other crucial missing child is Leonora, whose story occurs on a single day and is interspersed among the chapters about the vagabondage of Paul. We find out in the first of the Leonora chapters that she will be abducted, and she is, on p.275--which is the point at which I had to put the book down for three months.

I don't expect to be recommending this to the book club, because the abduction of Leonora is wrenching, but Braunstein does manage the very difficult feat of finding a moment of illumination in Leonora's final hours that comes into strange alignment with a moment of illumination that occurs to Paul and one that occurs to a stranger (not the abductor) who had talked to Leonora earlier in the day. We glimpse an idea a bit like Kingsolver's, though maybe harder to state, about the ways lives and events, even terrifying events, come together in ways that seem to point at a possibility of meaning.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Paul Trynka, _Brian Jones; The Making of the Rolling Stones_

I HAVE BEEN a fan of Paul Trynka since his Iggy Pop biography, which struck me as having found the golden mean between myth mongering and careful, fact-checking, almost inevitably diminishing journalistic investigation. Trynka did his legwork, got the interviews, figured out the timeline, compared accounts, separated the wheat from  the chaff. Yet Trynka also understood to the bone why Iggy mattered to so many of us, what his unique achievement was.

Split the difference between Hopkins's and Sugarman's No One Here Gets Out Alive--myth mongering at its most besotted--and Albert Goldman's mean-spirited Lives Of John Lennon and you are in Trynka territory. Well-researched and clear-eyed, but with a deep understanding of why we care about these musicians, foibles and all.

So, in this volume, Trynka does not bother concealing that Jones, intelligent though he was and charming though he could be, was narcissistic, selfish, lying, frequently cruel, utterly unreliable, and by the end of his career with his Stones more a liability than an asset musically (and legally, with his chain of drug busts).

But, at the same time, his was the haircut and wardrobe that every aspiring rock musician in 1966 copied. He was the first one in the Stones to be hanging out with Dylan, Warhol, Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Hendrix, Nico. The Stones were indeed, Trynka maintains, Jones's band, his vision; he defined the early attitude, set the repertoire.  He's the main reason, arguably, that the first album sounds the way it does.

Once manager Andrew Loog Oldham was in the picture, and once Oldham decided to turn Jagger and Richards into a songwriting duo, Jones was increasingly marginalized within the band, a process accelerated by the accumulated resentment against him (he could, after all, be a diabolical asshole).
Still, as Trynka points out, for a guy who reputedly was unable to write songs, Jones added distinctive bits to Jagger-Richard compositions that ended up as those songs' defining hooks and certainly worth a co-composing credit in most bands.

Can you imagine "The Last Time" without Jones' snaky, hypnotically looping guitar figure, or "Paint It, Black" without his sitar, or "Under My Thumb" without his marimba, or "Lady Jane" without his dulcimer, or "2000 Light Years from Home" without his demonic mellotron?

Mick Taylor--as many people will remind you--was a better guitarist, a virtuoso. Taylor certainly ushered in the band's live peak. But in how many Rolling Stones songs is the Mick Taylor part the part you remember first? Whereas, can you play "Ruby Tuesday" in your head without hearing Jones's recorder part?

Even when he was losing it, Jones came up with the slide guitar on "No Expectations" and the tamboura on "Street Fighting Man"--slight touches that lift those tracks into the empyrean.

I bought into Trynka's case, as you can tell. Towards the end, Trynka calls Jones "one of the most visionary musicians of the twentieth century." That seems hyperbolic to me--on the other hand, to see the pop possibilities in raunchy Chicago electric blues took a lot of vision, and Jones was interested in hybridizing rock with world music well before anyone was calling world music "world music." I don't think I would have let Brian Jones hold my wallet, but he changed the game on those early Stones records.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Eimear McBride, _A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing_

GREAT BACK-STORY--young Irish woman tries for nine whole years to get her debut novel published, turned down time and time again, then the small and courageous Gallery Press takes it, and bang, it wins a whole raft of prizes.

And deserves them, too. So far as the plot goes, we are not too far from Dorothy Allison territory: our young narrator grows from girlhood to young womanhood in poverty, the corner posts of her life being a brother with what will become a fatal brain tumor, a mother given to bouts of Roman Catholic religiosity and guilt-mongering, and a sexually predatory uncle.

Stylistically, though, the novel reads more like Gertrude Stein--less like Stein's prose, though, than her poetry: staccato, hypnotically repeating, the syllables disjoining and rearranging themselves into new combinations. This sounds as though it would be very difficult to read, and probably is what discouraged all those publishers for nine years, but, actually, once you become accustomed, the movement of the language is generally swift. It would be hard to skim, true.

The novel is sad--terribly sad--but exciting in that it announces the advent of a marvelously gifted young writer.

But to talk about that sadness. For one thing, the only relief our (unnamed) narrator finds for her anger at her sexually abusive uncle, her grief over her dying brother, her frustration with her uncomprehending mother, and her guilt over all the foregoing circumstances, lies in promiscuous sexuality, with a streak of masochism in it, with a variety of strangers--and a continuing relation with the uncle as well. This all seems to be her choice.  Does that make it a legitimate choice?

I've wondered about this before (see "Fifth of Five Notes on Sheila Heti," June 11, 2013), and I am still stymied. If feminism was about empowering women to make autonomous, self-determined choices about their own lives, is a young woman who freely, autonomously chooses sexual abjection therefore somehow... empowered? That can't be right, can it? Maybe I'm just too old.

But our narrator does not seem empowered, really, given what happens at the end--or what I think happens at the end. Here we have my second problem. Certain passages of the book, especially as the brother nears death and the narrator's sexual abjection become more frantic, have a (quite appropriate) hallucinatory blur, and the action becomes harder to discern. In the closing pages...

...okay, if you are the sort of person who prefers not to know endings, you may as well stop here. Looking around on the internet last night, I noticed that none of the reviewers discuss the ending of the book, which I found frustrating, because I wasn't sure I had understood it.  Apparently there are serious taboos governing this matter.

But it seems to me (stop now or forfeit your right to complain) that the narrator drowns herself. There is a lot of going-to-the-other-side swirliness about these passages, and they are laced with phrases from W. B. Yeats's "The Stolen Child," a poem about fairies seducing/abducting a human child to leave its parents and come with them. There's also a lot of baptism imagery going on, here and elsewhere, of a bleakly ironic sort. Obviously a profound transition is occurring. But is the young woman actually committing suicide?

I may have misunderstood. Well, I will just have to wait for the Sparknotes commentary. Which is probably being prepared as I write, because this book is bound for reading lists all over this and other lands.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Roz Chast, _Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?_

MAUS, PERSEPOLIS, BLANKETS, Fun Home, Stitches, American Born Chinese, now this... is there something about the graphic form that lends itself particularly well to memoir? Why are so many of the strongest works in the emerging graphic canon non-fiction?

My guess: the fictional ones veer too easily into genre conventions of fantasy, science fiction, noir. They have a harder time escaping the gravitational pull of comic books. I like comic books, too, but....

There's always Chris Ware, though.

But here, as with the books in the list above, the blending of the painfully real with the stylization of comics-style drawing and story-telling creates an unforgettable book. We already knew from her decades of New Yorker panel cartoons that Chast was a keen-eyed but sympathetic observer of the absurdities of lives that are very, very circumscribed (by both circumstance and choice), so she is unsurprisingly good at capturing how her parents' live narrow down as their faculties fail--I was a little surprised, though, at how honest she can be as she shows herself again and again falling short of the ideal-child-of-aging-parents she wanted to be.

It's hard to be that ideal child of aging parents. Hard. What the book reveals ought not to be a surprise--at the end of things, you are still you, and your parents are still your parents--but she and many of the rest of us somehow got the idea that something epiphanic was supposed to occur. In a way, it does.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Spencer Reece, _The Clerk's Tale_

I LIKED REECE'S Road to Emmaus so much that I figured this, his previous (and first) collection, was worth a try, and it's just as good--while I did not come across an individual poem that affected me quite as much as "The Road to Emmaus" did, this collection may actually be consistently stronger, in a poem-by-poem, page-by-page way.

(The auto-correct on my computer keeps assuming that by "Emmaus" I must mean "Emma's.")

As in many first collections, influences are sometimes easy to spot.  The use of anaphora in "Chiaroscuro" and "To You" recalls Eliot's "Ash Wednesday," as does the atmosphere of via negativa spirituality (also a part of The Road to Emmaus.) "Cape Cod" sounds a bit like middle period James Merrill. "Ponies" seems inspired by the very same occasion that led to James Wright's "A Blessing." (And Wright was Minnesotan, too, I think--I wonder whether Reece met him.)

The abiding presence seems to be Elizabeth Bishop, though, not just because she is mentioned by name in "Florida Ghazals" and because quite a few of the poems are set in the Keys, but also because the poems seem...whatever adjective can be formed on "Bishop." "Bishovian"? "Bishop-like"? Whatever we want to call the quality, it was wonderful to see a contemporary poet display it.

For example, Reece seems able to manage the Bishop trick of dissolving narrative into description, as in "At the Fishhouses" or "Cape Breton," where the event that occurred disappears wholly into details of the place where it occurred yet is felt in every line (see Reece's "Midnight" and "Diminuendo.") Or the Bishop of "One Art," the confessional impulse that is almost but not quite completely suppressed (see most of the poems Reece has gathered as "Addresses").

Bishop never wrote ghazals, so far as I know, but had she done so, they might have been as surprising, as nimble in switching registers, and as deft in their blending of innovation with fidelity to the tradition as Reece's are. The "Ghazals for Spring"were probably my favorite piece in the book.

Speaking of fidelity...why name the book after The Clerk's Tale? The poem of that title in Reece's volume turns out to be an account of a well-into-middle-age gay male clerk in an upscale men's clothing store, from the point of view a similarly circumstanced but somewhat younger man. So who is the Griselda here? Are we supposed to notice the patience and fidelity of the older man? Are they married, in a way? When they leave work, "Sometimes snow falls like rice." But they go in different directions, one to Minneapolis and one to St. Paul, "loosening our ties"--nice pun, by the way. Is the reference to the city of St. Paul's being "named after the man who had to be shown," an allusion to Chaucer's possible allegory about faith in the tale? I obviously have more questions than answers here.  Time for lunch.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mary Hickman, _This Is the Homeland_

I HAVE ALREADY submitted a review of this to a (much) more distinguished website and have high hopes that the review will appear this summer, so rather than pre-empt myself, let me simply say here that the good folks at Ahsahta have done it again, and that Mary Hickman's first volume is one any reader with an interest in contemporary poetry should investigate. I fell hard for the first poem--a distillation of Ulysses--and the subsequent ones only confirmed my belief that the teens of the 21st century are a grand time to be a reader of poetry.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rachel Kushner, _The Flamethrowers_

NOT SURE WHAT we have here, exactly. A hybrid of Judith Krantz and Kathy Acker, perhaps? As in the work of the great eighties schlock-mistress, an attractively plucky young heroine finds herself circulating in realms of colossal wealth and power…at the same time, as in Acker, trailer park grit meets high art knowingness.

Unstable as the compound sounds, it's a darned good trick, if one can pull it off, and probably accounts for the novel being both critically honored and book-clubbable (the May selection for ours). We get not only some fairly sophisticated depiction of Italian futurism and radical politics of the 1960s, but also the aforesaid plucky, motorcycle-racing heroine and her affair with the scion of a fabulously wealthy Italian  family, who also happens to be an important avant-garde artist and pretty damned good-looking into the bargain.

This all made for an engrossing read, even as my assessment wavered--but by the end I was impressed, really.  For one thing, the novel works as a dramatization of Peter Bürger's theory that the avant-garde sought to bridge the gap that had opened between life and art; Reno (plucky heroine) seeks to turn her (very real) motorcycle crashes into art, the Motherfuckers (Diggers-like radicals sowing anarchy in mid-60s NYC) seek to put imagination in power, etc. This all felt like a convincing portrait of the era.

(Didn't credit the anecdote that the Motherfuckers beat up the Stooges, though. Maybe Iggy could be taken, but Scott and Ron would not have been so easy.)

Clincher, though, was that Reno did not ultimately prevail, as she would have in Krantz-land, but by the end felt like the true heir of Lucien de Rubempré, Julien Sorel, Fréderic Moreau, and all the other bright sparks from the provinces who got their foot in the door in the capital only to get amputated at the ankle.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Rudy Wiebe, _Peace Shall Destroy Many_

PROBABLY NORTH AMERICA'S leading Mennonite novelist--not a category that many of us think about, I suppose, any more than we wonder who the leading Presbyterian or Southern Baptist novelist is (Mormons: got to be Evenson, no? He gets my vote, anyway).

Peace Shall Destroy Many is Wiebe's first novel, published in 1962 and set in a small Mennonite settlement in Saskatchewan.  The year is 1944, and the Mennonites, especially their young men, are caught in a conflict between the resist-not-evil teachings of their church and a society that is urging them as sternly as possible to participate in what seems a just and necessary war. Having achieved a measure of prosperity and stability in Canada, is it permissible for the Mennonites to let other Canadians die to preserve their security?

Village patriarch Peter Block, as inflexible as his surname and bearing dark secrets from the old country (the village was founded by Germans-from-Russia, an ethnicity with its own distinct history and identity here in the Great Plains), fiercely maintains that the Mennonites have to maintain their separateness as a community.  Thom Wiens, just now coming of age, has to decide whether to serve his country or abide in his church.

We do not find out explicitly which way he goes--our book club (this was our April selection) was split on the question, actually. I was inclined to think he wound up accepting conscription, but others thought he decided to stay with the Mennonite community, but work to move it out from under Block's thumb and into a stronger relationship with the surrounding society.

This wobble in the denouement may be one of those first-novel kind of issues: descriptions a little too ornate, characters who come onstage with a flourish and then evaporate, Block's becoming much more interesting than Thom ever manages to be. But Peace Shall Destroy Many also has first-novel kinds of virtues: the excitement you sense in the writer in working his experience in the refining fires of his imagination, the revelations of getting inside a community unknown to outsiders, the sense of lives at stake. Weibe's subsequent novels are probably better than this in several ways, but there's a headiness in this one (cf. Look Homeward, Angel) that was probably hard to re-capture later.