Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, July 22, 2016

Noelle Kocot, _Soul in Space_

ANOTHER GOOD ONE from Kocot. Four sections. The first has a lot of short poems with short lines, often with phrases rather than complete sentences, clipped, not giving a whole lot away but even so with stray lines of direct address: "That's all I got," "My mind is not right" (or is that just citing Lowell?), "It will all be okay, I promise."

Part two: a nine-page poem, most of it statements about "it," but the pronoun has no antecedent until the second page: "I will be mad. / / I will be mad because it is my mother."  So, in some ways, a familiar kind of poem about an aging parent ("It liked looking at pictures of cats / On the computer"), but the simple alienation-effect of the pronoun brings out a very particular aspect of this experience (I can attest), one's intimate involvement in a difficult process that one can do little to alleviate, that one can sometimes only watch.

That's the thing with Kocot (for me). She creates a charged intersection of the confessional and the surreal. I wish we could revive that grand old term "expressionist," but we're probably too far down the road for that.

Part three: perhaps my favorite, actually, all sonnets (nineteen), exuberant in their verbal invention yet also strictly containbed by the form--another good example of two divergent things happening at once, pulling aginst each other, yet also strengthening each other.

The wolf howled at the flock, linguistics
Didn't matter. I spout tubes today from
My head, the trees, leaves, all over the place.
Another blue valley in a starboard eye-socket,

A paper touch of something else.

The language is in flower, but the kenosis is ongoing: "I am not finished emptying myself, even though / I thought I was." Nonetheless (unlike James Wright?), "I have not wasted my life."

Part four: harder to characterize. Seems connected to part one, but more expansive, perhaps more ambitious, still streaked with pain, but with a weary sort of spirituality;

          Is this a 
message? A message to whom? Is it
To you, who polishes me like a pearl?

The acknowledgements page indicates that the book's title is the translation of a Jarrell poem, "Seele in Raum," which has a couple of lines that might account for this book's hybrid of mystery and candor:

            This is senseless?
Shall I make sense or shall I tell the truth?
Choose either--I cannot do both.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ashbery and Radiohead?

JUST A COINCIDENCE, probably, but when I noticed that the track sequence on the new Radiohead album (which is quite good, I think) was based on alphabetical order, I wondered if they were following the example set by the tables of contents in Ashbery's Can You Hear, Bird and Planisphere.

Radiohead may be about the only band out there I would suspect of nicking an idea from Ashbery.

Interestingly, this random principle, as in the case of the books of Mr. A. himself, turns out to generate a persuasive, even moving sequence, from "Burn the Witch" to the at-long-last studio version of "True Love Waits."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

John Seabrook, _The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory_

THIS SUMMER I read two books by New Yorker staff writers concerning small, narrowly-focused bands of like-minded individuals who were exercising a disproportionate and not very happy influence over the hearts and minds of the United States.  This was one of them; Jane Mayer's Dark Money was the other.

Max Martin and Dr. Luke are doing less damage to the culture of our dear republic than the Koch brothers are, to be sure.  Seabrook himself, despite having grown up with the same rock and roll classics that I did, finds the whole Britney-Backstreet-Ke$ha-Katy Perry spectrum embraceable. Daily drives with his son led to a kind of Damascus moment during Flo Rida's "Right Round," and  he discusses Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and Rihanna's "Umbrella" with the relish of an enthusiast.

He's not alone. Joshua Clover's occasional Nation column takes contemporary pop as seriously as Dylan was ever taken, and a recent issue of n+1 had a long piece on Drake.  Carl Wilson's book on Celine Dion takes for granted that the art/commerce distinction, as it affects pop music, deconstructed itself ages ago.

It's just never going to work for me, though.  Having started listening to the radio when "Like a Rolling Stone" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" were normal fare, having signed on for the Velvets, Bowie, the Stooges, and punk in my twenties, having claimed the Smiths and the Replacements in  my thirties, I was just plain immune to the strains of Britney and Spice Girls that seeped out of the kids' rooms during my forties.

Nonetheless, I devoured The Song Machine, a gracefully-written triumph of reporting that gets behind the scenes and explains lucidly and unjudgmentally just how the current purveyors of pop go about their business. For me, the real sonic landscape of our time is elsewhere than in Katy Perry and Taylor Swift (an elsewhere populated by Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, P. J. Harvey, Johnny Marr, Courtney Barnett, and Anton Newcomb, among others), but I was grateful for the tour offered in Seabrook's book of the sonic landscape that most of the country inhabits.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Jonathan Franzen, _Purity_

ALMOST PASSED ON this one. I picked up Freedom with some anticipation, having enjoyed The Corrections and having duly noted the advance acclaim for the successor cropping up everywhere from n+1 to Time, but it was a dud, I thought--the central triangle not that persuasive, the initially promising kulturkampf confrontation with the neighbors two-dimensional.

Purity was much more cooly received, so I'm not altogether sure why I decided to read it anyway, but I did it, and I think it a much stronger novel.

Purity is the name of the central character, but she goes by Pip, and she has a lot in common with her Dickensian namesake: self-centered, prone to misjudgment, object of mysteriously-motivated benefactions, but good-hearted and capable of learning from her mistakes.

A very large part of the novel, though, is devoted to Pip's parents and their pre-Pip loves and entanglements, including one with an eccentric East German dissident who goes on to found an organization very reminiscent of WikiLeaks. This clay-footed figure generates most of what we might call the plot, but let's skip that. The looming question for him, for Pip's father and mother, and for other characters in their orbit is finding an indubitably noble end that can be pursued with uncorrupted means--hence another dimension of the novel's title.

Finding a noble end achievable by uncorrupted means sounds like a first-world problem, and it is, but it is the classic first-world problem, since first-worlders are always already complicit in crime simply by being first-worlders, so this particular conundrum seems worthy of a long novel. A similar conflict was discernible in Freedom, but it tended to shade into idealism-vs.-pragmatism, and Purity takes on the question with both more irony and more gravity. Not to mention more intelligence.

Franzen does a lot of things well here. In Freedom, the transitions from Franzen-esque narration to style indirect libre were bumpy, the timing of the revelations stagy, but both matters are adroitly managed here, the latter worthy even of Dickens.

Biggest surprise was the fifth and longest of the book's seven sections, which keep calling Philip Roth to mind. It's in the first person, which Roth uses (used?) often but Franzen rarely does, but the main similarity lies in Franzen's character Anabel Laird, who repeatedly evokes the many fictional avatars of Margaret Martinson, Roth's first wife (see Letting Go, When She Was Good, Portnoy's Complaint, My Life as a Man (best place to start), and The Facts). Franzen cannot quite match the histrionic high notes that Roth can hit in in the mad scenes, but Anabel walks away with the book, really.

Actually, factor in that Anabel is also Penelope Tyler, Purity's devoted, vulnerable mother, and she begins to look like the most interesting character Franzen has ever conjured up. I wouldn't want to be married to her, but she's really marvelous.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Jana Prikryl, _The After Party_

SORRY TO KEEP pulling this dodge, but I hope to write about this one elsewhere, too. I've been waiting to get this book for a while.

 It must have been a year or so ago I started noticing poems by Prikryl in places that do not publish a lot of poems, and seem to prefer poems by well-established poets at that: New York Review of Books, The Nation, New Yorker, London Review of Books. I liked the poems a lot, so I went looking around to see what books were available, but to my surprise, she had not published a book yet.

So who was this newcomer who had cracked the lineup in publications given to publishing Ashbery, Graham, Pulitzer prize winners, and such?

There turned out to be a book forthcoming in 2016. I pre-ordered it, it duly arrived early this summer, and it's very good. Given how visible her periodical publications were, though, I was surprised again in seeing that her book came out with a publisher I had never heard of, Tim Duggan Books, which sounded like the smallest-of-the-small presses.

Wrong! Tim Duggan Books "was founded in 2014 and is committed to the highest standard of storytelling across a range of genres," according to its website, and is part of the Crown Publishing  Group, which in turn is part of Penguin. As near as I can tell, Tim Duggan Books does not concentrate on poetry, or even on the particularly literary.

So, how did The After Party wind up with Tim Duggan Books? I find myself wanting to know.

Robyn Schiff, _A Woman of Property_, again

SO...I DID, in fact, do a blog-post review of this for a classier blog, and it will likely appear in due course, so I will not pre-empt myself here, but I'm wondering about the reference to Ramon Fernandez, whom the speaker seems to be addressing at one point in the book's final poem, "The Houselights."

Is this the French critic Ramon Fernandez (1894-1944), onetime communist a collaborator with the Nazis in the final phase of his career, invoked by Wallace Stevens in "The Idea of Order at Key West"?

Or the Philippino basketball player that Wikipedia assumes must be the one you want to know more about if you search for "Ramon Fernandez"?

Not at all sure how good my chances of getting an answer to this question are.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Christian Caryl, _Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century_

ONE OF THIS summer's projects is to finish as many as possible of the books I started last summer, and the summer before that.  (I think I can fairly claim to be one of the leading starters of books in Lancaster County.) I started this in the summer of 2014, being something of a fan of Caryl's pieces in the NYRB and also intrigued by the thesis.

We often hear of 1968, and of 1989, but Caryl decided to look at a counter-revolutionary moment, and 1979 was the year Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Deng Xiaoping came to power. Much of the 1960s and early 1970s were about cracking things open, shaking things up, letting one's freak flag fly, etc., and these four ushered in a period of rolling back, cracking down, cleaning up: Thatcher taking on the welfare state, John Paul II taking on Vatican II, Khomeini taking on westernizing secularization, Deng...

...okay, so here is one rough patch in the thesis.  Wasn't Deng about liberalizing, opening up, rather than restoring something?

Caryl does, however, make explicit that being an effective counter-revolutionary is not just being a reactionary, not just vainly trying to restore some status quo ante. An effective counter-revolutionary learns the revolution's tricks, figures out what it got right, then exploits its blind spots, complacencies, inefficiencies, hypocrisies...so Deng may be a counter-revolutionary in that he undid a lot of what Mao created without bringing back the emperor? Well, maybe.

Generally, Caryl's arguments tend not to work equally well for all four figures. He thinks that reclaiming religion was important--obviously that was crucial for the Pope and the Ayatollah, in a way for the Iron Lady, but for Deng? Similarly, when he says that the counter-revolution was about the renaissance of the free market and the invisible hand, you can see that working for Thatcher, certainly, and Deng, and the Pope if we see him as a campaigner against Communism... but the Ayatollah? Was Khomeini an Adam Smith kind of guy?

The main part of the book, though, is more historical than grand-theoretical, narrating the advent, accomplishments, and long-term impact of the four figures, vividly and energetically. I finished the book persuaded that there had been a spirit of '79, and that it had done a lot to create the world we live in now.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Robyn Schiff, _A Woman of Property_, interim report

I HAVE HOPES of writing about this volume in a more-frequented corner of the internet than my little (though beloved, of me) anonymous blog, but I feel compelled to note here an especially striking sentence, from "A Hearing":

            Every time I descend the stairs I
trespass what I already own.

The statement seems to be about going into a basement, as there's a reference to changing a filter on a boiler, and in my part of the world, such operations occur only in basements. It has, I expect, metaphorical extension in several dimensions and is about "more" than going down into basements, but the unnerving thing for me is that is exactly how I have felt, since childhood, about going into basements, and I have never seen it expressed so compactly and accurately.

Basements, even the basements of the houses I live in, have always seemed to be the domain of some Other--ghosts, trolls, basement beings--who need to be acknowledged, placated, flattered (like the Eumenides) before they will permit your presence in their world to go undisturbed. However much time you spend there, whatever favorite toys are kept there, whatever activities routinely occur there, whatever necessary chores (e.g., laundry) occur there, you are never on your own ground in a basement; you are trespassing.  The basement belongs to them. You are there on sufferance only, under surveillance, even if you have paid off your mortgage (as I have) and own that basement free and clear, your basement is not yours.

I have not the least idea whether this is what Schiff actually had in mind--but it coincides so perfectly with an intuition I have had since I was a pre-schooler that I am grateful for its articulation, whatever she actually had in mind.

I haven't finished the book, but it is the spookiest thing I have read since There Is No Year. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

John Beer, _The Waste Land and Other Poems_

HARD TO BEAT the book's title for sheer chutzpah--the cover is even a facsimile of the back cover of the 1923 Hogarth Press edition of Eliot's poem.

Smart-assery (to give chutzpah another name) is discernible in Beer's re-make of Eliot's most famous poem, but the smart-assery is, one has to admit, smart--Eliot's dedication to Pound, "il miglior fabbro" ("the better craftsman"), becomes a dedication to Jack Spicer, "the fabber craftsman"--and Beer knows his source poem deeply enough that his "Waste Land" seems less parody than what the 18th century called an "imitation," a re-imagining of the poem into new circumstances, as Pope did with Horace and Johnson with Juvenal. Some of it is easy pickings--"hurry up please it's time" becomes "Borders will be closing in fifteen minutes"--but Beer is more alert than most commentaries to the ways that Eliot's poem is self-deflating, a joke at its own expense (for instance, Beer opens with a take on the "Water-dripping song" that Eliot later said was the best part of the poem).

Other poems in the book seem to be looking sidewise at Four Quartets ("The Perfumed Crypt") or at Marx ("Theses on Failure") or Rilke ("Sonnets to Morpheus"), but I wonder whether these overtly acknowledged precursors are not the crucial ones. The poet who most haunts the volume, to my ear, is Ashbery:

What was I trying to get at? Once posed in that condition,
the question seemed slightly insane, a septet of cardinals
lunching at the Rainforest Café. The old skin issues
kept reasserting themselves, a wayward boomerang
lurching hither and yon, over hills and dales and hibernating
     ("Bob Hope Is Not a Plan")

Similarly, "Sonnets to Morpheus" actually seems to owe less to Rilke than to the shaggy-dog narrative poems of Paul Muldoon in his earlier days--"The More a Man Has, the More a Man Wants," for instance. The book's deftness in Advanced-Class Leg-Pulling, all by itself, could be seen as following the example of Muldoon (cf. Madoc) or Ashbery (cf. everything he ever published).

Beer has a touch all his own, though, elusive of definition but discernible enough to leave me wanting to read the next one.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Marianne Moore, _Observations_

MY THANKS TO Linda Leavell, whose idea I am guessing it was to reissue this 1924/1925 volume as a separate publication. I read the Selected Poems and the Complete Poems back in grad school and enjoyed them, but it was H.D. I could not get enough of. The volume edited by Grace Schulman some years ago helped considerably, but reading Observations as a stand-alone gave me a Moore I could love as well as respect. This is the poet that one can understand Pound dedicating Personae to, or Eliot praising, or (looking at the back cover) drawing blurbs from John Ashbery and Jorie Graham.

The exacting metrical experiments, the precise syntax, the suspicion that animals might be more admirable than people, the Jamesian needle of irony it takes several seconds to detect, the balance of extravagance and restraint--

Sun, you shall stay
With us. Holiday
     And day of wrath shall be as one, wound in a device
           Of Moorish gorgeousness, round glasses spun
           To flame as hemispheres of one
               Great hourglass dwindling a stem. Consume hostility;
               Employ your weapons in this meeting place of surging enmity.

--this is what Edith Sitwell was going for, I think, except that she never managed to get there, and Moore does almost every time. (The stanza is from "Fear Is Hope," which did not make the cut in the 1935 Selected or the later Complete).

And then there is what I can only call the wisdom of "The Labors of Hercules." Even Wallace Stevens never quite managed to get there. (To say nothing of Pound and Eliot.)

Interesting to read "Marriage," that none-more-dry dismantling, now that we are on the other historical side of Obergefell v. Hodges, not to mention Maggie Nelson's Argonauts.

We're just a few years from the centenary of this volume, and it couldn't sound more contemporary.

What an amazing photograph on the cover, too--no white hair, no tricorne, but the cool gaze of someone who has seen through all of it, including you.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Novels in Verse

DAVID MASON'S LUDLOW has me thinking about novels in verse. Not the same thing as a book-length narrative poem, it seems fair to say--distinguishable from epic, obviously (my students often refer to the Odyssey as a novel, but I don't think that counts, as they also refer to HamletThe Future of an Illusion, and the Koran as novels), and from Jerusalem Delivered, Orlando Furioso, and so on .

Blake's Jerusalem? Book-length, yes, a narrative, I would say so, but not a novel, perhaps. To adopt a Rancièrean lens, the shift from epic to novel involved looking at events not because they were arguably more important and significant than most events (e.g., Paradise Lost, epics in general), but precisely because they were on an ordinary human scale, because they belonged to quotidian reality. Similarly, the personages need not be movers and shakers, heroes, leaders--better if they were not, actually, apart from the odd cameo, Napoleon in Balzac's Une Ténébreuse Affaire.

Accordingly, Mason's Ludlow seems like a novel because the characters are not John D. Rockefeller nor (except briefly) UMW leader John Lawson, nor governors nor presidents, but people at ground level, as it were. The attention to setting, to period detail, to the ordinary fabric of a day. is that of a novel.

Mason's afterword mounts a defense for writing novels in verse rather than prose, and it's a good one, but the undertaking seems nonetheless quixotic to me because, as far as I can tell, there is no built-in readership for novels in verse. None at all. I know people who gobbled up Vikram Seth's 1000+-page A Suitable Boy but would not even go near his novel-in-sonnets, Golden Gate.

For that matter, novels-in-verse have next to no profile in the history of literature. Not that people haven't written them, or haven't written good ones, but even the good ones haven't had much impact, so to speak.

Is there even one novel-in-verse that those who feel a commitment to literature (writers, traders, teachers) feel they really ought to read? I have read several worthwhile examples, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, her husband's The Ring and the Book, Brad Leithauser's Darlington Falls--I would even put in a good word for Stephen Vincent Benét's John Brown's Body. But I can't recall ever hearing someone say, "I have always wanted to get around to reading The Ring and the Book," as they might of The Divine Comedy or the Aeneid.

In sum: novels-in-verse have no canonical presence to speak of.

Why is that? It seems wrong, somehow.

I was able to think of a novel-in-verse that really ought to be canonical, though: Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. The depth of field and psychological acuity of a novel, the die-cut concision and verbal agility of a poem, and available in not one but two highly readable English translations. Eugene Onegin ought to be the novel-in-verse that everyone thinks they ought to read.

Monday, July 4, 2016

David Mason, _Ludlow_

I CANNOT REMEMBER exactly why I bought this. When I come across a poem that I particularly like in a periodical, I often go online to get a recent volume by that poet, and I assume something like that happened in this case.  I must have really liked whatever poem by Mason I read, because I would  certainly not otherwise have picked up a "verse-novel" about one of the grimmest episodes in the already grim enough history of American capitalism.

I do remember opening the package when the book came and thinking, "you idiot, when do you think you are going to have time to read this?" But as luck would have it, I was reading an issue of The Baffler focusing on violence in American politics, and there were some references to the massacre of the striking coalworkers at Ludlow, and I remembered I had a verse-novel on the subject right here in the house somewhere, so... I sat down and actually read Mason's book.

It's good. A brisk read, strong sense of the place and the time, situated mainly from the point of the view of the miners, a couple of memorable characters--Louis Zikas, who was historical, a Greek immigrant and one of the strike organizers, and Luisa Mole, fictional, orphaned daughter of a miner killed in an accident, taken in as maid-of-all-work by the Reeds, who operate a company store.

The language is plain and modern, verse relatively traditional, blank-verse pentameter in eight-line stanzas, although Mason uses rhyme in a few spots (and very effectively, too, it adds a discernible intensification) and shifts to hexameters (if I'm scanning it aright) for the story's violent climax, perhaps recalling western narrative poetry's blood-spattered origins in Homer and Virgil.

The eight-line stanzas seem to me a counter-intuitive choice for a long narrative poems, as the stanza form would tend to lock you into a set narrative pace, a challenge not even Spenser consistently overcame. Mason makes the pace work to his story's advantage, though; that the narrative never seems to speed up noticeably or slow down noticeably lends gravitas to the story, a seriousness reinforced by Mason's rhetorical restraint. There is plenty to say here about the desperation of the miners' lives, plenty to say about the ruthlessness of the institutional forces brought to bear on them, but Mason's keeps his tone subdued and lets the specifics do the talking.

Mason's book has done well: my copy is from a second edition, published by Red Hen Press, and it won a couple of awards. Still, undertaking the writing of a novel-in-verse seems peculiarly quixotic to me...but this post is already lengthy, so that may be a subject for later.