Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sybille Bedford, _A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveller's Tale from Mexico_

THE VAGUE INTENTION to read Sybille Bedford one day formed for me after reading an essay on her by Hilary Mantel, I think it was, an impressive number of years ago, but it took Lisa Cohen's All We Know to get me to the point of actually taking one up--and I took up this one, of course, because Bedford's companion on this journey to Mexico was Esther Murphy, with whom I felt just a little in love after reading Cohen's biographical triptych.

I seem to recall a remark in Paul Fussell's Abroad (a study of interwar British travel books) to the effect that a great travel book could not be written about Mexico, the country having defeated even such excellent travel writers as D. H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. He's wrong, though--this is a fine book. (Perhaps, published in 1953, it fell outside of his chosen timeframe). I see an NYRB Classics edition is due this summer.

Bedford and Murphy's reasons for going to Mexico in the first place never become completely clear, and their prolonged stay with the ineffectual but charming Don Otavio similarly hovers in some region beyond ready explanation, but if you as reader are willing to tolerate a little drift for drift's sake, all will be well.

You get to hear the conversation of Esther Murphy, for one thing.  Sybille takes it into her head that she wants to buy "two Mexican baby donkeys, one grey one and one black, for fifteen shillings a piece," and get them to France.

     "And how do you propose to get those animals from Bordeaux to Normandy?" said E.
     The shipping clerks were finding their stride. Every day more details, all splendid were coming to light about the desirable cargo boat.
     "Are you sure it exists?" said E. "Is there such a thing as a freighter from Vera Cruz to Bordeaux?"
     I reminded her of a friend of ours who had actually travelled on something of that nature.
     "Ah, but Nancy commands freighters; they rise for her from the seas like Prospero's island. And nearly drown her, too."

I'm willing to credit Esther with an assist, too, on the bravura passages on Mexican history here--she could, Cohen assures us, be spellbinding on, for instance, the Hanseatic League, so I wonder whether her spirit breathes in the chapter on the Emperor Maximilian. You will read nothing more captivating on the Emperor Maximilian  this year or next, that I can promise you.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

G. C. Waldrep, _Testament_

TRUTH TO TELL, I read Adorno's Noise because it is one of the three texts (the others being Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip and Alice Notley's Alma, or the Dead Women) that this book began as an "exploration of and response to," as a concluding note explains.

I have several favorite contemporary poets, and Waldrep has been one of them for years. I hope to write about this book for a more reputable blog, so rather than start gushing here, I will limit myself to the observation that, like most of my other favorite contemporary poets, Waldrep takes chances with form, is intellectually stimulating, and  is occasionally baffling--odd as this may sound, I can't love a poet who does not sometimes confuse the bejeezus out of me--and adds a fourth quality I rarely encounter in company with the first three: he pays attention to music.

Lot of contemporary poets do pay attention to music, of course.  They just happen to be poets who do not much appeal to me in other ways.

And it does seem that music is a kind of antiquated bourgeois ornament, I suppose, a fetishizing of vowel sounds and metrical devices, a distraction from the matters of greater public moment to which Harryman, Robertson, and Notley, among others, call our attention.  I understand poets deciding to dispense with it. And if Waldrep was mellifluous and only that, I would enjoy him, but he would hardly be a favorite. That he can maintain intellectual rigor and be mellifluous, however, places him in a very sparsely populated category.

I just opened the book at random, and found this:

In the scaffold of the wound
love's heart lies, many-throated messenger.
We are hopeless idiolects, winter vowels
mute in the biceps. Carpe diem,
more petty inscriptions on the abdominal wall
drumming in its constituent dusts.

Now, I may not be confident about what this compounding of love, language, and anatomy adds up to, but any poem with phrases like "hopeless idiolects" and lines like "drumming in constituent dusts" is one I am willing to ponder for a very long time.

Carla Harryman, _Adorno's Noise_

IN THE BACK of my mind, I kept thinking this was part of a series that also included Alice Notley's Grave of Light and Richard Greenfield's Tracer.  This notion is plainly wrong, as the three books come from three different publishers, but the coincidence of their sharing conspicuous design elements (all were designed by Quemadura) led me to think of them as three faces of a unified project.

(Quemadura=Jeff Clark, I believe, himself an excellent poet. Is it a sign of the times that one can make a more reliable living designing covers for books of poetry than one can by writing them?)

Beyond the similarity in design, I felt a shared atmosphere--mainly in the closing, more-recently-composed pages of the Notley (which is a selected poems), more in the indoor than in the outdoor poems of the Greenfield, but all the way through with Harryman--an atmosphere I feel like attributing to the Mordor-like gloom of the second Bush's second administration, the mood created by the perception that suspicion, meanness, and ignorance were getting the last word too often, that the nation one must perforce call one's own was weighing darkly and leadenly on the rest of the world, that resistance was urgently necessary yet doomed to the futile emission of quickly extinguished sparks.

Adorno's Noise is actually the first whole book by Harryman that I have read, although I've been seeing her work here and there for a good long time (e.g., since In the American Tree). It was published in 2008 by the Essay Press and is a "next American essay" sort of essay, hybrid in genre.

It was not doing a lot for me in the early going, I confess, despite its obvious intelligence and urgent commitment, perhaps because the cloud of oppression I tried to describe above sat thickly on the book, but the section titled "imagination is inflamed by women who lack imagination" seriously hooked me--it had the intelligence and the commitment still, but also seemed to be deploying a technique I am going to call fugal, generating a formal energy that seemed to break up the miasma.

And I fell hard for "Beware of seeking out the mighty." Harryman takes the rhetorical turn, "In doing x I am not doing y," familiar from many political speeches in which some gesture or other is carefully distinguished from some gesture the politician does not want to be associated with ("In withdrawing this proposal we are not caving in to cynical criticism, but rather..."). With this simple device she launches on several long chains of distinctions-by-negation that mix détourné clichés, humor, confession, and observation into an investigation of how writing attempts to intersect with intelligence and urgent commitment--not always successfully, but the attempt matters.

The final section, "Headless Heads," also impressed me--a high-wire juggling act involving William Blake, Robert Smithson, Kenzaburo Oe, Yukio Mishima, Roberto Tejada, and some friends of Harryman's identified only by initials. The title kept making me think Bataille and Acéphale were the key to the whole thing somehow, but the connection, is there was one, eluded me. Definitely made me want to read more Oe, though.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Tom McCarthy, _Satin Island_

SETTINGS SOMEWHERE IN the purlieus of gigantic internet companies are getting to be as common now as fictions set wholly or partly in the former Soviet bloc were in 1990s. Dave Eggers's The Circle, Dara Horn's Guide for the Perplexed, Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers, the new Franzen (so I hear, haven't read it yet), probably quite a few more I don't even know about, and this one. Must be the zeitgeist.

As the setting is familiar, so is the basic problem. Our narrator, U. (ha!), is an anthropologist hired by an internet mega-enterprise to...well, to suss out the zeitgeist, basically, and write a report that will contribute to a project of global domination. We sense early on that he is not going to be capable of pulling this off--not in any way that will satisfy his employers, at least. Like the protagonists in Cohen's Book of Numbers, Sam Lipsyte's The Ask, and a fair number of the fictions of Ben Marcus, Gary Lutz, and Gary Shteyngart, the amazingly confected opportunity that has been handed our man on a golden platter is going to wind up all over the front of his shirt and over most of his lap. Beautiful women will snicker; accomplished men will snort; the tender-hearted will look away in embarrassment.

The coming-apart is more poignant than farcical in McCarthy's hands, though. Bristling with theory and preternaturally gifted at pattern recognition, U. is nicely situated to map the zeitgeist, so when he homes in on the future being a trash-incinerating plant on Satin (Staten) Island, you have the feeling that he is right, even as you suspect that the Company will not be keeping him around much longer.

Not quite the jolt to the cerebellum that Remainder or C. was, I would say, but McCarthy remains someone I will be keeping on my radar. Need to go back and read that first one.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

David Mitchell, _Slade House_

SLADE HOUSE IS a short spur line off of the main track of The Bone Clocks, about another confrontation between some soul-suckers of the Shaded Way and the Horologists, with the Horologist (Marinus) prevailing.

At 238 pages, this is something of a jeu d'esprit for Mitchell, a novelist who likes his elbow room, but even so it includes his characteristic time-hopping and has a sizable cast.

Wasn't sure I would enjoy this, as I prefer Mitchell when he is in his late-model, well-tuned English realist mode, more the vein of Jonathan Coe and Zoe Heller, with the cosmos-fantasist mode sprinkled ever so lightly on top. The Bone Clocks, by its penultimate chapter, was going all out for the cosmo-fantasist vein, Deatheaters vs. Order of the Phoenix, Sith vs Jedi, the Shire against Mordor, and I wasn't sure I was up for a book that is largely in that vein start to finish.

 Have to admit, though--I enjoyed it. There is always enough observation in Mitchell--the three first victims of the Grayers (Norah and Jonah, twins and soul-suckers off the Shaded Way) all felt truly and exactly rendered: a mildly autistic boy, a not quite on the up-and-up police officer, a socially awkward undergraduate. As long as he can keep doing that, he can go as cosmo-fantasist as he wishes, as far as I'm concerned.

Monday, January 11, 2016

James Tate, _Dome of the Hidden Pavilion_

QUITE A FEW of my longtime favorite poets came out with new books in 2015, so I have been using January as a chance to catch up--Doty, Glück, this one, and Ashbery, Muldoon, and Ni Chuilleananin await. Dome of the Hidden Pavilion seems largely continuous with Return to the City of White Donkeys and The Ghost Soldiers--lines so long and loose that these might be prose poems with unjustified right hand margins, drily surreal humor peeking out behind clichés, imagery somehow oneiric and matter-of-fact at the same time. The book is divided into three parts, so while I was reading part of my mind was sifting for principles of organization. The first part has a good many poems involving wars and soldiers, the second quite a few dialogues, often testy, and in the third there are more than a few deaths. None of these categories seems really airtight, though, as testy dialogues crop up in each of the three sections, ditto for the other possible themes. As with the book's two immediate predecessors, some of the poems ambled along without really arresting my attention, but others got me right between the eyes--I would cite "Dome of the Hidden Temple" (n.b., not "pavilion"), "Manual for Self-Improvement," "The Chicago Dead" (in second section, wouldn't you know), and "The Afterlife." All in all, I would say the energy and ingenuity are slightly lower than in Return to the City of White Donkeys and Ghost Soldiers, the ratio of hits-to-misses a little smaller, but I may only be bummed because there aren't going to be any more.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Brandon Courtney, _The Grief Muscles_ and _Rooms for Rent in the Burning City_

I READ COURTNEY'S "The Physics of War" in  the November 2015 issue of The Progressive and immediately went online to see what I could order. Turns out he has these two volumes, The Grief Muscles from 2014 and Rooms for Rent in the Burning City from 2015. I submitted a review of the latter to a more respectable blog, where it may well be showing up one of these fine days, so I will not go into detail here save to say there is yet another fine young poet out there.

"The Physics of War" is not included in either volume, and is a bit more formally adventurous than most of the work that is, but like his other work does draw on his experience as a Navy combat veteran of the Iraq war. He is also a veteran of another war, having grown up in an Iowa small town during the meth epidemic; he is also the son of a Viet Nam veteran who sounds like he had his own demons, so there is a good deal of pain in the poems. Along with the pain, however, is music, cadence, imagery, and other such old-fashioned virtues.

And good for you, Progressive, for continuing to publish poems and excellent ones at that.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Peter Stamm, _Agnes_ (trans. Michael Hofmann)

I HAD NEVER heard of Stamm until a translation of his most recent novel was reviewed by Leo Carey, whose brief description of this, Stamm's first novel, intrigued me: "Currently out of print in English, it is hugely popular in German and features on school curriculums. It is easy to see why: the book is simple and haunting, a kind of parable without a message."

Not only is the book out of print, but out is also fetching rather steep prices on the secondary market, which is why I resorted to interlibrary loan (thank you, Amherst College!).

I can confirm that it is easy to see why the book has caught on--it has a lot of the appeal that The Stranger does. May be just a coincidence that it begins in a very similar way ("Agnes is dead"), but it  also relies mainly on short declarative sentences and relatively ordinary vocabulary, as The Stranger does, with a first person narrator who tells us a lot more about what he is doing than what he is thinking.  As with Meursault, there is reason to wonder why Stamm's narrator is doing what he is doing, why he is making the choices he is making. The choices turn out to have high stakes--the highest stakes, we could say--so it's a highly discussable book.

And as with Camus, there is a philosophical dimension.  The novel is about the narrator's affair with the title character, whom he meets by chance in a Chicago library. He writes a story about their relationship as the relationship is unfolding; not simply a chronicle, as the story does not simply mirror the relationship, but alternately converges with and diverges from the "real" events. To an extent, art imitates life, but occasionally life imitates art, and at yet other moments they seem incommensurable spheres. You could get a good discussion going about this, too.

I could see this becoming a hot property in lit classes, actually, if it came back into print and got the right push.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Carl Wilson, _Let's Talk about Love: A journey to the End of Taste_

GREAT IDEA FOR a book series, but ironically the titles about albums I love are often not that illuminating (e.g., Forever Changes) while those on albums I care almost nothing for (e.g., Masters of Reality) turn out to be interesting. It would have been helpful had the books about the albums been exactly as worthwhile as the albums themselves, but the odds against so lucky an alignment are very long, I can see.

Here we have a case in point of an interesting book about a (to me) not very interesting album, but in this instance Wilson picked his subject not because he loves the music of Céline Dion----indeed, as he explains in his first chapter, he was for a long time in the "hater" camp--but because he is intrigued by the question of how an artist can be as globally, massively popular as Dion is yet be so definitely, sometimes brutally written off by music critics as she also is.  Why do the masses flock so ardently to such mediocre music?--or--to flip the question--why do critics like Wilson disdain what virtually everyone else loves?

An intriguing topic, and Wilson's book deserves the buzz it has gotten (two perfect strangers on two different occasions in two different coffeeshops asked me about it when they saw I was reading it).

Reasons for hating Dion evaporate as Wilson finds out more about her.  She came from a working-class family she remained close to; she honors her French-Canadian cultural roots. There is nothing crass or opportunistic or pandering about her doing the material she does in the way she does it--she really believes in the power of a big, bombastic, tear-jerking ballad. Sentimental? Sure.  Derivative? Yes. But inauthentic? No. She is as committed to what she is doing as Ornette Coleman or Steve Reich or Sufjan Stevens or Julia Holter or whoever your example of unimpeachable musical integrity is.

Is "taste" just a kind of con, then? The idea of taste gets investigated in chapters 7 and 8. The Humean and Kantian versions get fairly short shrift; Wilson cannot see much foundation for the concept of taste, really, and seems to wind up in the Bourdieu camp--that "taste" is just a mask for class, that we construct our aesthetic preferences around our notions of what group we wish to belong to. If you wish to belong to the cool people who have been to college and scorn the musical spectacles mass-produced for the proles, you teach yourself to dislike Céline Dion.

There is certainly something to this. We can all, I suppose, think of things we pretended either to like or to dislike because of what we imagined others would conclude about us based on the liking/disliking. But there has to be more to it than that.

Devotees of Norwegian black metal, say, or of the Insane Clown Posse, would be among those who would sedulously avoid Céline Dion, yet they would not be doing so out of snobbery or elitism, right? Being a devotee of black metal might constitute a kind of inverted elitism, perhaps, in that you might feel a certain contempt for the people who don't get it, who don't understand that the essence of life is GHHRHHGHRGH; you might like black metal as a kind of identity thing, yes--but you don't like black metal as a prestige thing. You might get opera tickets or listen to Charlie Parker because you hope others will notice you are capable of appreciating finer things, or as part of some Leonard Bast-like aspiration program (see Forster's Howards End), but isn't taste also about finding the things that mean something to you, reveal something to you, that seem like the real deal?

I can see Wilson's point about the futility and unreason of resenting Dion's success or scorning her fans. More power to her and to them. But I can't see that I am just being a snob in not enjoying her music. True, she has a gorgeous singing voice, true, her arrangers and musicians are supremely capable, true, the sentiments in her songs seem unexceptionable, but the sum of the parts falls well short of the kind of revelation I know music can provide.

But take Lou Reed's "Perfect Day," for instance--there is a revelation.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Michael Wood, _Yeats and Violence_

AN EXCELLENT BOOK--as every book I've read why Wood is; this is my fourth (I read the book on One Hundred Years of Solitude, the one on Nabokov, and a collection of review essays).  This looks like his first one on poetry, though, which was a welcome surprise, and a bigger and even more welcome surprise was that it was about Yeats.

For, truth to tell, I am a Yeatsian. The one and only book I have managed to write was on Yeats.  But in the years since its publication--a good many now--I have often felt that Yeats was on the wrong side of zeitgeist.  His politics were terrible, for one thing--elitist, anti-democratic, not precisely fascist but all too close. He could get some points for being part of a national liberation struggle, but his role in the nationalist movement was so conflicted that Seamus Deane, for instance, could  get a bit snarky about him. Gender politics?  Well, Yeats often wrote admiringly of women, but "Prayer for my Daughter" misses on every cylinder of contemporary sensibilities, and the depiction of rape in "Leda and the Swan" is not going to get a pass from any feminist this side of Camille Paglia.

His aesthetics, too, seem creakily antique. What MFA program would encourage any writing so highly wrought, so artificial, so willing to traffic in archaisms, or for that matter so vatic, so hermetic as most of Yeats's is? "You want some Modernism? Go read Tender Buttons."

So when Wood, one of the most erudite and lucid critics around, someone who when asked to give the Clarendon Lectures could conceivably have turned in a polished performance on anything from Tarkovsky to Proust to whatever else is unproblematically admired, for him to go with Yeats...it just seemed too good to be true.

Actually, the title made me think it was too good to be true, that the book would turn out to be some kind of takedown, à la any book on Eliot and anti-Semitism.

But, surprise, Wood gives Yeats his propers. The book is about "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen," much as Kermode's Romantic Image is about "Among School Children"--we take a lot of side trips taking in a great deal of territory (Benjamin, Agamben, the Black and Tans, the "instructors" and A Vision, later Irish poets Heaney, Muldoon, Boland, and [!] Paulin, even [!!] prosody), but "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" is the center of gravity, and Wood does it full justice. Not the best-known of Yeats's poems--it's not in the Norton anthology, for instance--but it riveted me when I first read it, many years ago, and its warnings against complacency about progress seem truer as I age.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Richard McGuire, _Here_

ONE OFTEN HEARS that we are in a (perhaps the) golden age of television. I don't know. I did see all of The Sopranos and The Wire and spent time as well with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Orange Is the New Black, and they were certainly worthwhile...but...golden age? Really? I do not regret the hours I spent with these fine productions, but aren't they all a little, I don't know, nineteenth century? They all seem basic model Zola/Dreiser/Howells/Gissing  to me, as if television does not really want to step into modernism. They seem unwilling to match even the Dada goofiness of the last seasons of Green Acres, to say nothing of Twin Peaks.

Now, comics... there we are talking golden age. Take this volume, for example, a survey of the same thousand or so cubic feet over the eons--an intriguing enough idea, but McGuire ups the ante by taking advantage of the medium in an unprecedented way. Each two-page spread presents (in non-chronological order) particular moments from particular years, mainly from the 20th century but reaching back to primordial ooze and forward to post-post-apocalyptic future, yet the real genius touch is that each spread also has windows (as it were) opening up different spots of time within the main frame, glimpses of 2014, 1938, 1869, and 1352 popping into 1986.

Hardly any plot, scarcely any characters, but do yourself a favor, skip the Downton Abbey marathon (Merchant and Ivory, thou shouldst be living at this hour), and taste the true golden age.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Louise Glück, _Faithful and Virtuous Night_

ONE KNOWS BETTER than to put stock in the inside flaps of dust jackets, true, but this particular instance really pulled me up short.

You enter the world of this spellbinding book through one of its many dreamlike portals, and each time you enter it's the same place but it has been arranged differently. [...] Louise Glück's Faithful and Virtuous Night tells a single story, but the parts are mutable, the great sweep of its narrative mysterious and fateful, heartbreaking and charged with wonder.

Somewhere out there is a book that this passage describes, I daresay one by David Mitchell, but it isn't this one. I've read each collection by Glück at least once, and she has never been one to bind readers with spells, to my mind--she's one of the great poets of disenchantment. The reader can count on several pans of cold water right in the face with each volume, and this one is no exception.

As for the "great sweep of its narrative," I will concede it has a narrative. Glück has long tended towards coherent, unified volumes, with A Village Life getting downright novelistic, and this one does as well, with a first-person narrator, male, painter, orphaned in childhood, tracked over a lifetime. The painter's poems are the spine of the book, we might say, its ribs the interspersed prose poems usually in the third person, which do (I will also concede) have an oneiric quality. But the narrative is (as my metaphor suggests) skeletal rather than sweeping. It feels a lot more spare than that of Carson's Autobiography of Red, for instance.

It is also the case that some poems (e.g., "An Adventure," "A Summer Garden") seems more about Glück's circumstances than the painter's, and the blend does feel a bit uncanny...it just doesn't feel like the video game that the dust jacket flap copy describes.

Wouldn't say I loved the book (not that it needs any love from me, having won the National Book Award)--it suffers in comparison to Autobiography of Red, I think--but the title poem was amazing. It's in the voice of the painter and recalls a particular day about the time he lost his parents. It may be just the coincidence of reading this after Doty's "King of Fire Island," which reminded me of "The Moose," but "Faithful and Virtuous Night" brought to my mind another of the great poems from Geography III, "In the Waiting Room," with the same kind of quotidian details that surrounding circumstances have given  the power to sear themselves imperishably on a child's memory. Great poem--"heartbreaking and charged with wonder," so the dust jacket copy writer got at least that right.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Allie Brosh, _Hyperbole and a Half_

IT'S HEARTENING WHEN something as peculiar as this becomes popular and successful--Napoleon Dynamite, say, or the first Violent Femmes album, or Weetzie Bat. Heartening to me, in any case. I am happy to have evidence that the population of those hearing different drummers is large and widely dispersed.

These hybrid comics-essays first appeared on the internet and were created with a rudimentary drawing program the very limitations of which Brosh manages to make expressive. The Brosh character looks the same whether child or adult--a face that's a bit like a frog's, wide mouth and widely separated eyes; a yellow triangle that possibly stands for hair, but might be a conical hat; a magenta rectangle for a body, four bent wires for limbs. The other characters look a bit more like ordinary cartoons and less like the drawings of five-year-olds, but only a bit more. (Oddly enough, Brosh achieves a kind of uncanny fidelity when drawing dogs.)

The brutally simple drawing style accompanies accounts of episodes from Brosh's life that are certainly often funny, but also often painful--"unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened" in the words of the subtitle--which she relates with an honesty and directness that startle and an an insight that convinces. Her account of her depression is one of the very few things I have read that gives me a graspable idea of how depression feels, and parts one and  two of "Identity," which closes the volume, could serve as useful elucidations of Paul's and Augustine's accounts of their own bewilderment at their inability to do what they knew perfectly well to be the right thing to do.