Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ange Mlinko, _Shoulder Season_

MLINKO'S POETRY CRITICISM is some of the best in circulation today, I think; her poetry is not as consistently rewarding, but it's the real deal.

I picked this up because I enjoyed, in a baffled way, her previous volume, Starred Wire. Shoulder Season is already a few years old and is not her most recent volume; it's a bit more accessible than Starred Wire, but still has more than enough opacity for most readers, I daresay.

The first thing I noticed was its formal variety. The book's epigraph, from James Schuyler--"'Like that gathering of one of each I planned'"--seemed in the early going a description of the forms of the poems in the book, each one of a kind. Eventually, a few of the forms were repeated, but Mlinko's ability to mix it up delighted. She even likes to rhyme occasionally, sometimes audaciously ("diptych" and "realpolitik," "the whole shebang" and "interrobang"). She's not shy about throwing you a simile inside of a simile:

Love will be organized like notes from a piano
emerging like ants from the furrows of a peony.

The imagery tends to be homey-whimsical: butterflies, bakelite, young children, car-seats, lots of flowers and other plants. Why is it, though, that all this winds up sounding ominous? The little ante-room one goes through when entering or exiting the butterfly house turns into a security checkpoint. The bakelite shows up in a poem about how a mother's ear catches every slightest nocturnal sound. Even the plants turn into explosives: "And ferns flame where their spores crashed."

Since the book was published in 2010, perhaps its poems took on the dark coloration of the news of 2008-09. "Someone uses your mortgage / to leverage / something / far inside the starbursts of a server," we read in "Securitization"; in "Atgm," "Earth looms like rock / outside the window threatening fissure / from a petaled 9M133 Kornet."

There may be a kind of as-above-so-below consolation when she finds small patterns repeating themselves on a larger scale: "each tree casts its shade in the form of its summary leaf," for instance, or "Crystals of sodium chloride // are made up of smaller crystals of sodium chloride," fractal-fashion. But by page 30, it's winter, and all we have are "icy clearances / where the trees used to cast their shade / in the form of their summary leaf" (my emphasis).

The volume ends in a children's museum, which sounds fairly cheery, but if you have actually been in a children's museum, you know they can a little...unsettling. "The ice wigs' molecules vibrate, but in a gas state // they're distracted [...]." That kind of children's museum.  Let's hit the gift shop quick and get out of here.

Friday, March 27, 2015

James Shea, _The Lost Novel_

HARD TO BETTER Graham Foust's assessment in the back cover blurb: "Lo and behold: James Shea is the James Shea of poetry." Shea gets some of his best and most distinctive effects with like repetitions, which look like tautologies from one end, like Möbius strips from another, and which leave one with a certain defamiliarizing-the-familiar effect, a kind of ostranenie, by making you look at something right next to itself.

There's an old saying: there's an old saying.

A finger snapping in your cerebellum, no? "There's an old saying" is an old saying, one realizes, and realizing we have an old saying we habitually use to introduce old sayings induces the same euphoric vertigo we get from the ending of the book's first poem:

Something flew out of
the window and then
the window flew out of the window.

"New and Selected"--kind of a miniature volume within the volume--contains a twist on the doubling-is-revelation idea, whisking it out from under us:

Two Pieces of Advice

Most advice comes in the form of two pieces.
This is not really advice.

We can take in the first piece, acknowledge its accuracy (neither a borrower nor a lender be, know when to hold them and know when to fold them), then get the smack of the poem's disproving of its own assertion...but was the assertion really advice to begin with?

There's something Asian in the way so many of these poems fruitfully wrong-foot the reader, even though the prevailing landscape is that of the Great Plains, even though "purposeless purposiveness" turns out to be Kant rather than Zen. The twain shall never meet? I don't know--they seem to have met here.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Julianne Buchsbaum, _The Apothecary's Heir_

I DO NOT remember exactly how I acquired this. Coming across it, though, I noticed a blurb from Lucie Brock-Broido (who picked this volume for the National Poetry Series in 2011), and since I had just read and valued The Master Letters, it seemed like a sign, of sorts.

As with The Master Letters, the earlier poems in the collection tend to stick with a pre-20th century vocabulary. Natural imagery abounds--stars, birds, leaves, the sea--but in a decidedly dark, estranged, Poe-ish register. It may be the alliteration and internal rhyme that reminded me of Poe--"a scarecrow shuffles its cuffs of straw"--but the gloom and claustrophobia are part of it, too. "Summer of Fires" seems almost to be a gothicized re-write of Keats's "To Autumn."

Close to mid-point, a different kind of diction makes itself heard (a "dilapidated Chevrolet," "Dixie cups," and "a dose of Thorazine"); formally, the poems have a lot in common with those earlier in the book (lots of unrhymed couplets darting forward through some unguessable, unshareable logic), but they belong more precisely to the present, create the same exposed-nerve terror in more locatable circumstances.

All in all, these poems seem to come from a frightening place, and one admires Buchsbaum for getting enough mastery over that place to write these poems out and see them into print. It was certainly an interesting, though scary place to be for 63 pages.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Terrance Hayes and David Lehman, eds., _The Best American Poetry 2014_

 A LOVELY INTRODUCTION by Hayes--turns out an earlier volume in the series (the 1990 one, edited by Jorie Graham) was the first book of poetry he ever purchased, back when he was in college. He casts the introduction as interview of himself by...Charles Kinbote. Not bad.

The 2014 volume was satisfying in the ways I have come to expect from the series: stylistic variety, some old hands and some new faces, virtually all the poems worth reading and a few of them outstanding (including poems by Kathleen Graber, Patricia Lockwood, Cate Marvin, Diane Seuss, and Sandra Simonds, in my opinion).

There seem to be a higher than average number of African-American poets this year, but what is more interesting than that is my only realizing this after reading the contributors' notes and seeing how many of them were associated with Cave Canem. The poetry from the African American contributors, in other words, fits fairly smoothly, both aesthetically and in it subject matter, with the rest of the best American poetry of 2014.

Which it would, I guess--the African American poets went through the same MFA programs as the rest, got the same advice from the same teachers, were exposed to the same influences, and write about love, family, memory, pain...so how different would anyone expect them to be?

As it happens, last month I was re-reading Dudley Randall's 1970 anthology, The Black Poets (I had assigned it in one of my classes), focusing on the lengthy section of 1960s poets, which includes Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, June Jordan, Don Lee (Haki Madhubuti), Nikki Giovanni, and several others. And while they do sometimes sound a bit like each other, they do not sound at all like W. S. Merwin, or Sylvia Plath, or Frank O'Hara, or anyone likely to have been included in the Best American Poetry of 1967, had there been one.

So, is that progress? Or the tragedy of assimilation? Phyllis Wheatley redivivus, or a post-racial American poetry? Or one more reason to get snarky about MFA programs?  Or one more reason to be grateful for them?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lucie Brock-Broido, _The Master Letters_

I BOUGHT THIS about five years ago when a friend expressed surprise that I had not yet read it; it has occupied a variety of to-be-read-soon piles in the intervening time, but it was Helen Vendler's review of Brock-Broido's most recent that finally gave me the shove I needed. Very compelling, I have to admit, once I got well into it.

Read from one direction, The Master Letters is a self-consciously literary project, a kind of poetic fantasia on the three draft letters, possibly never sent, written by Emily Dickinson to a possibly married possible clergyman. We know nothing about the circumstances in which they were composed, but their emotional megatonnage is no whit injured by that ignorance. Their power is such that you almost hope the poor New England schlub never received them--they would have vaporized him.

Brock-Broido's poems partly imagine their way into those circumstances, not so much filling in detail as elaborating upon them in something like Dickinson's own vein of audacious figuration, reimagined syntax, and stop-start rhythms. For the most part, there's not a word in here unknown in the 19th century...

...but then there's the occasional "janitor / Sweeping alone at night with his orange // Push broom in the fallout shelter." At such odd moments, the frame of reference becomes contemporary, and we think we hear the poet herself. So, read from another direction, the book has a confessional voice whispering within the Dickinsonian voice. One letter to the Master is signed "Your, L"--Lucie, one supposes.  Another evokes her father, "unlucky / In the little aristocracy // Of Homestead, beside a century / Of other Jews with ruined // hearts [...]". Another quotes and responds to a vituperative review of one of Brock-Broido's previous books, which someone called "Haute Couture Vulgarity" (sounds like William Logan, doesn't it?  Just a guess.)

The friend who was sure I would like this had a very just notion of what I like--it's just elegant enough, just mandarin enough, just witchy enough, just musical enough for me, without ever being too much of any of those things. I will be reading more.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Amaud Jamaul Johnson, _Darktown Follies_

The first half of Johnson's book (his second, I think) is titled "The Walk Around," and it revolves around the personalities and practices of black vaudeville. Bert Williams, Butterfly McQueen, Pigmeat Markham, Lincoln Perry ("Stepin Fetchit"), the Blackbirds. Though not dramatic monologues, the poems tend to inhabit the performer's perspective, mining the ironies of performing blackness in that era. The performers are conscious of their gifts, confident in their talent, but also up against a hard bar of what audiences would and would not accept from an African American artist. They made a living, it beat breaking rock, and they could occasionally give the audience a glimpse of something else...but they had to work in a pretty tight box.

Since I bought the book at a reading, and  the reading was on a college campus, and this campus poetry reading (like most) had a very nearly 100% white audience, I found myself speculating whether Johnson was drawn to this project because he, too, has his own box of "performing blackness"  to negotiate. He has a good gig in an MFA program,. his book has been published by one of our stronger small presses (Tupelo)...he's in an enviable situation, in a lot of ways...but one wonders, especially after reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen, whether his box feels a little cramped once in a while.

For example, the second half of the book ("The Olio," another vaudeville term, for an encore set) contains a series of poems about a trip in Europe. They are really good. But had Johnson been trying to sell a volume of poems based on a trip to Europe rather than one based on black vaudeville, would that have been...harder? Would he have to field hints about his Responsibility to the Street or the People or something of the sort?

There is a funny poem by Tony Hoagland ("Write Whiter") that imagines a white writer having to address the kind of expectations African American writers live with: "I know some readers need to see their lives reflected from the page-- / It lets them know they aren't alone." It wouldn't always seem funny, though, I'm sure, to have to live out one's career with those expectations. Judging from his deportment at the reading, Johnson handles it with the same grace and dry irony he lends to his vaudeville performers. Only once in a while do you almost think you hear anger:

And if you wanna go exoskeletal,
Or get all "the cranium's vault,"

Or how the crest is swaybacked
And primitive--well, when push

Comes to shove, I can get
Downright Aeolian on you, son.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

David Lee, _Last Call_

We have not had a poetry week at LLL for a while, so here we go.

Last Call, Lee's most recent book, is in large part a memorial tribute to his friend, the great Nebraska poet William Kloefkorn, who died in 2011.

One wing of the memorial is a series that opens with the poem "The Monument to the South Plains," a conversation between a father and a son about the son's sculpture project, a towering assemblage of found objects--the found objects being all images (as an endnote explains) drawn from Lee's and Kloefkorn's poems. The poem generates a series of poems that turn into a parable of art: the sculpture attracts skepticism and mockery, then respect and reverence; it nearly becomes a commodity once it catches the eye of the rich man in town (Kay Stokes, whom the reader may recall from Lee's My Town); it draws into itself a host of meanings, and finally seems to exist purely for its own sake: "it's probley one of the most beautiful things / I ever saw in my goddamn life."

The other wing is another series of poems, braided through the book with the sculpture series, this one relating a dawn-to-way-past-dusk odyssey featuring a character named Clovis and his friend Billy Klogphorne. This, too, is a monument to the South Plains, or the idiom of the South Plains, salty and terse.  Clovis and Billy are retired literature professors, given to the mock floridity of which Twain was a master, and Lee seems to enjoy toggling back and forth between their polysyllabic conjuring--the high point of which is Billy's disquisition on time and space--and the laconic grittiness of the people they stop to talk to in the taverns--the high point of which is a haunting account of a fiery accident on an oil rig.

Lee has the gift of hearing and capturing the poetry that surrounds us in the speech of our neighbors, as did Kloefkorn himself, and it's hard to imagine him not loving this book.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Amor Towles, _Rules of Civility_

OUR BOOK CLUB read this one this month; I think I'm the only member who did not much like it.

In the early going, a sort of Jules-and-Jim story emerges: New Year's Eve, 1937, New York City, single girls and best-friends-forever Eve and Katey meet Tinker, to all appearances a wealthy blue blood Manhattanite. They both seem a bit taken with him, he with them. A car accident, with Tinker at the wheel, in which Eve is badly hurt, gives her a kind of pity-advantage...but does he really care more for narrator Katey?

This story dissipates, though, as we we focus for several chapters on Katey's simultaneous climbing of the social and career ladders.  Then, Eve somewhat precipitously declines a marriage proposal from Tinker and decamps for Hollywood. Tinker and Katey strike up an affair, but she then learns he is not what he pretends to be. It's a blow, but she pulls herself up by her spaghetti straps and resumes her conquest of New York.

The reviewers quoted in the paperback edition mention Wharton and Fitzgerald--an inevitable association when one is writing about wealthy people in New York before World War II, I suppose--but even though Tinker's eventually-exploded cover puts one in mind of Gatsby, Towles struck me as more akin to John O'Hara or Louis Auchincloss.  Skillful, okay, but great? Not so much.

What did remind me of Wharton was Katey's anti-Semitism. This goes by pretty quickly. Katey rebuffs the friendly overtures of Charlotte, also in the secretarial pool where Katey works--why? Does Charlotte's Yiddish-speaking grandmother, whom Katey bumps into on the street, have something to do with Katey's coolness towards the effusive Charlotte?

I wonder.  Having noticed this episode in chapter 6, I also noticed that this is one of the very few novels about the 1930s I have read that never mentions Hitler, even though it is set in 1938, the year of Kristallnacht and the Munich crisis. Even though the sort of people Katey starts running with are the sort of people who complained about Roosevelt, there's nothing about him, either, or about Lindbergh. Or Father Coughlin.

Well, maybe Katey is just not interested in politics, though her father is a Russian emigré, and Katey might have grown up hearing a lot of opinions about Jews and Bolsheviks.

Once I noticed all the politics that are not here, and the oddly discordant anti-Semitic note that was, I was more than a little disenchanted with Katey and her novel. Whose 1930s are these? Does Katey ever look at a newspaper or catch a newsreel? And then politics does suddenly get a cameo when one of her wealthy friends, Wallace, heads for Spain, to fight with...the Republicans? Yeah, right. All the characters in this book sound like Franco people to me.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Alice Munro, _Dear Life_

HAD I BEEN told in 2012 that the next year's winner of the Nobel prize in Literature was a Canadian woman, I would have bet the house that it was Margaret Atwood.

(1) She is internationally acclaimed.

(2) She is primarily a novelist--can you think of any Nobel laureate fiction writer, before Munro, better known for his or her short stories than for novels? Agnon, maybe.

(3) She is not only a novelist, but also one who often deals in big themes, and skillfully, too.

(4) For a contemporary writer, she gets loads of scholarly attention.

(5) She's a pretty damned good prose stylist, if you ask me.

(6) Alias Grace.

Still, one can hardly begrudge Alice Munro the honor. You wouldn't call her an innovator; she has struck squarely to the middle of the furrow first plowed by Chekhov and Joyce: relatively ordinary folks in relatively ordinary circumstances who abruptly find themselves face to face with a truth about their and their loved ones' being that will permanently mark their sense of themselves. Not a new furrow, and one that was been well and truly plowed in the 20th century, but she does it about as well as it can be done. And she is actually better at folding in history and the passage of time than even Chekhov or Joyce ("The Dead" excepted, probably); who better at giving you the density of a novel in twenty-odd pages? Who better at telescoping a character's past into her present, or her present into her future?

I worry, though. What are the odds of a second Canadian female fiction writer getting the Nobel in the next twenty years? And Atwood really deserves it. Roth really deserves it, too, and he's not going to get it, either, with Bellow already be-laureled. Well, what are you going to do?  Joyce and Chekhov didn't get it, either.  One really should not worry about such things, even though Boyhood not getting the Best Picture Oscar is robbery, plain and simple.