Loads of Learned Lumber

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.