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?