Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Han Kang, _The Vegetarian_, trans. Deborah Smith

JUST ABOUT ANY Man Booker winner is worth reading, but this one may be a classic.

The vegetarian of the title is Heong-hye Kim, a young Korean woman, raised in a strict patriarchal family, married to a businessman chosen by her father. She has an older sister, who is married to a video artist; they have a young son, and she runs a small cosmetics shop. Finally, there is a younger brother (of whom we see little), cut from the same cloth as the father.

The book is about rebellion, I'd say. Imagine The Awakening, but rather than getting Edna Pontellier's point of view, we get only those of her family and friends as they try to fathom what is going on with her, try to "help" her, correct her, chastise her, take advantage of her, sympathize with her. This strategy makes Heong-hye more difficult to identify with than Edna, but also more enigmatic, eventually more formidable, ultimately more challenging. There is something of Kafka's hunger artist in her, or something of Catherine of Siena...or maybe she's a goddess. She says little, almost nothing after the first of the novel's three sections, but everything she says seems oracular, touched by fire.

The three sections were apparently published as separate novellas in Korean. In the first, we primarily  have the perspective of Heong-hye's husband, annoyed by the possibility that his wife's eccentric diet will spoil his chances of promotion; he sends her back to her family as defective merchandise. In the second, her artist brother-in-law is fascinated by her and seeks to incorporate her weird power into his art, to possess her, but as a mere mortal ends up scorched by his contact with divinity. In the the third, with Heong-hye now in a mental institution, we have the perspective of the sister, whose conformity to the ideal Korean daughter/wife/mother roles begins to shiver and crack as she contemplates her sister's life.

This should be on a thousand syllabusses in ten years' time, thanks in no small part to the translation by Deborah Smith, the fidelity of which I cannot vouch for, but which is swift, elegant, and powerful. Kang has her Rabassa, and her conquest of English-speaking readerdom is assured.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rae Armantrout, _Versed_

TOOK ME A while to get around to this; it appeared in 2010. To tell the truth, I usually skip Pultizer Prize winners.  They tend to be worthwhile without being quite the sort of thing I most like. I was curious about this one, though, because Armantrout seems very left-field compared to most Pulitzer winners for poetry. She was in In the American Tree, after all. As far as I can determine, no one else included in that volume has won either a Pulitzer or a National Book Award--for which prize Versed was a finalist, by the way.

I find myself wondering how this sort of development occurs. I have not read a lot of Armantrout's work, but Versed does not strike me much more accessible or domesticated than her poetry from back in the 1980s and 1990s--a bit so, perhaps, but not dramatically. The poems are still elliptical, elusive, still have a measurable WTF factor:

Repeat wake measurement.

"Check to see."

"Check to see,"

Birds say,

"That enough time

Has passed."

Sometimes there is a vein of dark humor, especially in the prose poems, that could appeal broadly: "I call 911 but reach a psychic hotline." Sometimes, there is a recognizble allusion to popular culture: e.g., Anna Nicole Smith or reality television, as in the lines "One tells the story / of his illness / in such a way / as to make the others love him."

Sometimes there is a cosmo-theological thematic, as in the poem "Dark Matter," or a glimpse at family psychology, as in "Birth Order," but you also wonder if both poems aren't really more about writing than anything else (the latter, for instance, may be about how second stanzas have a peculiar ontological status, inevitably being seen within the contexts created by first stanzas).

So...it just seems surprising that the book got a Pulitzer. Not an unprecedented development (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror got a Pulitzer, for instance), and certainly a welcome one, but how does this happen? Is it just who gets picked as judges? Do attitudes change? How does the unlikely become possible?

The really funny thing is that I keep thinking the poems in Versed address exactly these questions.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Jackie French, _Ophelia, Queen of Denmark_ , and Lisa Klein, _Ophelia_

PAUL GRIFFITH'S BRILLIANT Let Me Tell You got me thinking about Ophelia as a Young Adult Novel theme, and it turns out that attempts have already been made. I sampled these two--Klein's novel is from 2006, French's from 2015.

French and Klein had several of the same ideas about how to make Ophelia's story YA-friendly. First person narration, for one thing. More crucially, no madness and no drowning/suicide. Ophelia only pretends to be insane in both novels, then fakes her own drowning, to enable her escape from the infected snakebite that is Elsinore.

Gertrude is fascinating and enigmatic in both--we are for a while kept guessing at how much she knows about Claudius and how sincere her interest in Ophelia's well-being is. Hamlet is likewise fascinating and enigmatic, and his and Ophelia's love is key to both plots, but in both novels he is revealed to be Mr. Seems-Right-but-Not-Quite, a Frank Churchill/Henry Crawford/William Elliott figure, too wrapped up in his obsession with avenging his father to sustain his relationship with Ophelia (in Klein, they are even secretly married, à la Romeo and Juliet).

The true Mr. Right turns out in both novels to be someone else that Ophelia settles down with once all the drama has blown over--Fortinbras in French's novel, Horatio in Klein's.

Both Ophelias have an episode or two in male drag; both are plucky, passionate, perceptive, and possessed of enviable survival skills.

French's Ophelia is an expert on cheese (is this a Danish thing?). French seems to have set herself the challenge of mentioning cheese in every chapter, sometimes to odd effect. On hearing of Polonius' death, Ophelia tells us, "My first thought was of cheese."

Klein's Ophelia (more plausibly) is an herbalist (Klein is a scholar of early modern lit). Klein's Ophelia escapes Elsinore and winds up in...a nunnery. Which is witty, I admit. The novel's Part 3, though, set in the nunnery (where Horatio finds her), gets a bit talky, a bit like a YA Magic Mountain (God, authority, nature).

Both novels had some good passages--getting Ophelia's version of the "nunnery" scene and the "play-within-the-play" scene definitely worked. Klein's is the better-written of the two.

If the mad scene is just a charade, though, and if there is no drowning, is this still the Ophelia we love? One misses the dark, doomy subtext, the black undercurrent. These are Ophelias for the Katniss era, I guess.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Jonathon Sturgeon, "Divine Indigestion"

YET ANOTHER COINCIDENCE (as in immediately preceding post): I finished Nell Zink's Mislaid on the plane, proceeded to a year-old issue of The Baffler that I had not yet gotten around to, and lo and behold, I found an article with a smart, interesting point about Mislaid.

To an extent, Sturgeon's article is an effort to revive interest in Quentin Anderson's The Imperial Self (1971), "largely forgotten," Sturgeon accurately notes, but worth renewed attention: "A closer look at The Imperial Self reveals a critique of a literary intellectualism that holds up because it is imaginative, yes, but also because the condition of the novel has not changed that much." Anderson, he writes, "examined the 'imaginative desocialization' of American literature at the hands of a radical individualism" and sought to "ground literature in social context."

Mislaid and Paul Beatty's The Sellout are Sturgeon's examples of strong contemporary novels that pull against the tide of this all-devouring Emersonian individualism.

The selves is Mislaid are fluid, but they don't absorb other selves, nature, matter, or information. They exist instead in a near-Spinozistic web of pressured relationships. [...] Karen, who is open to being affected by others rather than guzzling them down, is what Quentin Anderson would have called "the transitive person," one "whose world is constituted by [her] ties to other people."

That's a spot-on observation about the book and about its most appealing character. And I need to find Anderson's book.

I wish, though, that in arraigning his "bad" exemplar (Jonathan Franzen), Sturgeon had not resorted to  the lazy argument of taking one of a novelist's characters to represent the situation of the novelist. Sturgeon says of Andreas Wolf from Purity, "Well, Wolf is just Franzen after the divorce, but before he learned to subsume birds." Urk. I don't think so. I have reservations about Franzen's novels myself, but that point won't hold.

Wolf is someone whom the world takes to be a selfless, even saintly apostle of honesty and transparency, but who actually has a terrible secret he will go to almost any lengths to protect, and who eventually succumbs to the tragic contradiction of his own life. That does not seem like even the loosest kind of analogue to Franzen's circumstances.

Reminds me of Amy Hungerford's basing part of her argument in "On Not Reading DFW" on the claim that anything that comes from Mark Nechtr's mouth ("Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way") as good as comes from Wallace's.

Come on, now. We can do better than that.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Brad Gregory, _The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society_ via Mark Lilla

I ORDINARILY DO not write an entry on a book until I have finished it, but since it may be years before I finish Gregory's fairly dense study, I feel an urge to note right now the odd coincidence that I was in the middle of its second chapter when I read the review of it ("From Luther to Walmart") included in Lilla's The Shipwrecked Mind.

(In fact, this was the only chapter of The Shipwrecked Mind that I had not read before; the other pieces had appeared in New York Review of Books, but "From Luther to Walmart" had been published in the New Republic--not one of my usual stops.)

Lilla is none too complimentary. He sees Gregory's book as typical of the nostalgia he diagnoses as central to conservative thought. Conservative intellectuals, Lilla argues, posit a Golden Age that preceded a fall into modernity (and our present bloody-minded anxieties) and then attribute that fall to some thinker or idea, such as the gnosticism and "immanentizing the eschaton" (Voegelin) or Machiavelli (Strauss).

For Gregory, according to Lilla, "before the Reformation the harmony of the heavens was mirrored in Christian life and thought." Reformation theology, which sought only to correct some problems with the church, had unintended philosophical consequences that led to the secularization of the natural sciences, education, and political economy--and their attendant alienation and anomie.

The thing is---since I had just started Gregory's book not long before I read Lilla's review, I happened to know that Gregory explicitly denies having written the kind of book Lilla is describing. In his introduction, he states, "This is neither a study of decline from a Golden Age nor a narrative of progress toward an ever brighter future, but rather an analysis of  unintended consequences that derived from transformative responses to major, perceived human problems" (20-21; emphasis mine).


Still, even though Gregory, in his own estimation, is not writing out of philosophical nostalgia, and even though he is obviously a thorough and careful scholar and writer, I'm not sure Lilla's characterization is unfair. Gregory is meticulous about drawing connections between Reformation thinking and secularizing social trends, but something in his tone suggests not just that the secularization of the west was contingent upon certain philosophical developments within Protestant thinking, not just that it was avoidable, but that it was also undesirable, and may even be reversible.

As Jeremiahs go, Gregory is subdued. But is there a little Jeremiah in there? Lilla has a point, I think. I plan to carry on with the book, though--Gregory may be no Franz Rosenzweig, but he's an intellectual mensch nonetheless.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Nell Zink, _Mislaid_

SOMEWHAT TO MY surprise, Zink's second novel is a bit more grounded, "normal," and domesticated than her first; family conflicts in Virginia circa 1960-1980, set alternately in a small college town and in the backwoods, easily tracked plot, interesting minor characters, plenty of humorous asides…realism of a familiar sort, then, but nonetheless with a bit of an edge, like A. M. Homes, say.

And as with Homes's May We Be Forgiven, and a good many of the stories in the Ludmilla Petrushevskaya collection I read last month, we have (what I would count as) a happy ending, despite plenty of ingredients for a disastrous, traumatic, scarred-for-life blow-up.

The happy ending of Mislaid is not all the plausible, indeed flies in the face of what would most likely happen in the circumstances created by the plot, but its very implausibility is what redeems it, makes it a wondrous thing. While Mislaid certainly unfolds in the voice and pace of of the realist novel, it ends up seeming akin to Shakespeare's late romances, in which similar potentially traumatic accidents, mistakes, and decisions turn out, years later, to have prepared the ground for forgiveness, reconciliation, and content.

How likely is it that Prospero's betraying brother would fall into his hands years later? That the blindly jealous Leontes would have a chance to be reconciled with the wife whom his suspiciousness had killed sixteen years previously?  That after long separations and thinking the other dead, Posthumus would recover Imogen, or Pericles Marina? Not at all likely. Flat out incredible, really. Yet Shakespeare is able to make us see that the world is always more than the likely, more than the plausible.  And a good thing it is, too.

Zink manages something like that. And as with Miranda, Marina, Perdita, and Imogen, a young girl shall lead them. Karen Brown, a.k.a. Mireille "Mickey" Fleming, is a Perdita for our times. She's a minor miracle.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mark Lilla, _The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction_

LILLA IS A particular favorite of mine. The Stillborn God is brilliant intellectual history of the old kind (A. O. Lovejoy, Erich Auerbach, above all Isaiah Berlin), and his essays on the careers of various thinkers have the swiftness, assurance, and clarity of the Edmund Wilson of To the Finland Station and Patriotric Gore. His being skeptical about Marxism and respectful of certain conservative thinkers may explain, I'm guessing, why he does not have the cachet of, say, George Scialabba, the same way Berlin does not have the cachet of, say, Raymond Williams. I have to confess, though, that that skepticism and that willingness to entertain other perspectives are exactly what I appreciatre about him.

Superficially, this book has a lot in common with the Corey Robin book I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. It consists mainly of republished pieces, aims to create a kind of collage map of the intellectual right by examining the careers of crucial figures, and uses its introduction and conclusion to sketch an argument that unifies the book's various individual pieces.

Lilla finds (in spots) a greater integrity and coherence on the right than Robin does, though. Robin sees the right's arguments as inescapably founded on making cases for threatened or vanished privileges. Lilla sees them as founded on nostalgia. "Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody's nostalgia," he writes (xiv); each right-wing thinker he examines "believes that a discrete Golden Age existed and that he possesses the esoteric knowledge of why it ended" and thus of how it might possibly be restored (xx-xxi).

I wonder, though, whether the Robin and Lilla summations of reaction do not so much oppose as complement each other, as in the old vase-or-two-profiles optical lllusion, in which you could see one or the other but not both at once. May one describe Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign as nostalgic? Yes--hazily articulated, not necessarily even sincere on his part, but probably authentic  enough as regards many who voted for him. Was Trump also appealing to a sense that male privilege and white privilege and straight privilege were crumbling? Well, yes. But do we have to choose which analysis is more true? Is there a way to think about both of these ideas at once?

A wide stream in my 2017 reading has been trying to understand the advent of Trump, and both Lilla and Robin helped. Next stop--Arlie Hochschild?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Nell Zink, _The Wallcreeper_

RECENT NOVELS BY American novelists that set American characters in eastern or central Europe typically take on the seriousness of eastern and central European novels. They can still be witty or farcical at moments, but (thinking of Caleb Crain or Garth Greenwell, say) they do curve towards the moral gravity and earnestness of Mann, Musil, Broch, Bernhard (who can all be funny--don't get me wrong--but the somber is never far away).

So, a distinctive thing about Zink's The Wallcreeper is that it is set mainly in Switzerland and Germany and has mainly American characters, but it relies on the deadpan, unfazed, somewhat flattened tone of a lot of American fiction (in my personal shorthand, the "Didion-effect") that does not show much elation over fortunate events nor much dismay over unfortunate ones.

The novel opens:

I [the narrator, Tiffany] was looking at the map when Stephen [her husband] swerved, hit the rock and occasioned the miscarriage.

Stephen swerved because he saw a rare bird--the wallcreeper of the title--and he stops to retrieve it. Oddly enough, even though a miscarriage is a serious life event, it hardly gets mentioned again. We are left to wonder how much it mattered to Tiffany.

The bird, however, gets a lot of attention in the following pages, getting a name (Rudi) and even some celebrity, due to its rarity. But on p. 55, Rudi (even though he is the title character) gets an abrupt Janet-Leigh-in-Psycho early exit:

I got my binoculars focused on Rudi in time to see the tiny hawk raise his head wet to the nostrils with Rudi's blood and plunge it again into Rudi's chest. Rudi's beautiful red and black wings with their absurd white polka dots twitched, twitched again, and died. The hawk ate his heart and flew away.

This event too is met with a certain flatness of affect. Stephen is temporarily upset, but Tiffany does not give much away, either at the moment or later.

Situations of genuine gravity keep occurring--betrayal, adultery, drug addiction, the fate of the planet [both Tiffany and Stephen are enviro-activists), and death--but the classic Mitteleuropa earnest reflection (the main ingredient of Nádas's A Book of Memories, which I had just finished) stays far away. Tiffany has frequent recourse to the wry & dry, candidly owns up to her own lapses and misperceptions, but does not give away much about her inner weather. Her emotional life is pretty much under seal.

So why did I end up enjoying this novel as much as I did? I admit, I almost gave up after Rudi met his end. (Zink's epigraph is from Ted Hughes: "I kill where I please because it is all mine.")

Partly, I think, because Zink somehow conveys that Tiffany is feeling a great deal more than she is letting on. Late in the novel, as she and Stephen are roaming the woods, they see a terrible sight:

One day we got to a dead ewe in time to catch the goose-stepping of the griffon vultures arriving to deliver its breech birth along with everything else except its rumen, bones, and pelt. Before I closed my eyes, it skyrocketed to first place on the  list of the most repellent spectacles I had ever witnessed, lending a vivid symbolic figuration to events I had hitherto refused to name.

The miscarriage, I'm guessing--unmentioned, intentionally and fiercely unmentioned, but unforgotten.
And maybe the repression makes sense. After all, in an eat-and-be-eaten world, how much brain-space can one spare for sentimentality?

Partly, too, Tiffany just becomes good company. She is smart, she's funny, and she spreads a lovely constellation of allusions: Horace Andy and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Prince Kropotkin and Slavoj Zizek. She even mentions Robert Walser and Thomas DeQuincey in the same sentence. So she's all right in my book.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sarah Manguso, _300 Arguments_

I WOULD SUGGEST 300 Conclusions as an alternate title, for while the maxims, aperçus, and one-liners in this book do seem to have under or behind them full arguments and lengthier expositions, what the reader gets its just the succinctly wrapped-up end point of the argument. "Bad art is from no one to no one," for instance, conjures up a whole essay. We get the hard sparkle, intuit the invisible underwater iceberg.

"Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book's quotable passages," Manguso writes.  Imagine a long book like, say, Jennifer Moxley's The Middle Room, a mid-life memoir about writing as an art and as a career, about love, sex, and friendship, about mistakes made and lessons learned. Then imagine the book having 300 sentences or short passages you would tick in the margin or underline. Imagine those 300 marked sentences or short passages in a book all by themselves. That is what we have in 300 Arguments.

Maxims and aperçus that have become famous run to the inspirational, affirmative, and consolatory: "Be the change you want to see in the world," or "The arc of history is long, but it bends  towards justice," or "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all." Manguso tends to swing from the other side of the plate: "Inner beauty can fade, too," or "The most likable person you know just might be a sociopath."

So, Manguso may be our Rochefoucauld. As Swift wrote,

As Rochefoucauld his maxims drew 
From Nature, I believe 'em true: 
They argue no corrupted mind 
In him; the fault is in mankind.

As with Rochefoucauld, the outlook is generally dark, but hard to disagree with, especially given how witty Manguso normally is: "Dying young can really help an art career along. It's the careerist's ultimate paradox."

But when the tone slips into the confessional--

The most fervent kiss of my life was less than five seconds long more than ten years ago with someone else's husband. It still hasn't quite worn off.

Or pays tribute--

Picture a locked storeroom strewn with all the old sheet music I had to give back to music teachers and choral directors, paper lying unused for decades, fading yellow, annotated in sharp pencil, the page containers of such joy that it sometimes choked me silent. No one who picks it up could know how it saved my life, over and over.

Or, as it often does in the final pages, sounds almost valedictory--

I want to shed my fears one by one until there is nothing left of me.

--when we get more than the hard sparkle of the illusionless, and we have something we never get from Rochefoucauld.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Péter Nádas, _A Book of Memories_ (1), trans. Ivan Sanders

HAVING FINISHED SZABO'S The Door a couple of weeks ago I was hankering for another Hungarian novel, so I went ahead and read this... ha! Just kidding.

No, I actually started this about four years ago. It's a 706-page Mittel-European cinderblock of a novel, and it was a bit of a climb. I would read 100 pages or so, take a break for a few months, read another 100-150 pages, take another lengthy break, and so on.

Not the ideal way to read "the greatest novel written in our time" (Susan Sontag), but it actually worked, I think. The prose takes a lot of attention--hence the comparisons to Proust, I suppose, but it reminded me a bit more of something like Broch's The Death of Virgil. You just had to surrender to it--you needed to set aside hours, not just twenty minutes here and twenty there.  After a few days with the novel, I always needed to come up for air.

An interesting thing, though, was that I could come back to A Book of Memories after months away and be able to re-connect. Its world and its voice are so distinctive and rich that when I picked the book up again, the characters and circumstances would pop back into existence within a few pages, as if I had been reading it only a couple of days ago. It's that vivid and that complete.

It braids three strands of narrative.

The first, to quote the jacket copy, "takes place in East Berlin in the 1970s and features an unnamed Hungarian writer ensnared in a love triangle with a young German and a famous aging actress." Intriguingly, though, this is a real triangle, in that not only are both the Hungarian writer and the young (male) German sexually involved with the actress, but they are sexually involved with each other as well.

The second strand is "composed by the writer"--that is, represents the work of the Hungarian writer involved in the triangle--and "is the story of a late-nineteenth-century German aesthete whose experiences mirror his own." I'm not sure how long it would have taken me to figure that out, left to my own devices. My initial thought was, well, this is about a Romantic Werther-Schlegel-Novalis figure (passionate and introspective, full sail into his sturm-und-drang period) and set many years before the relatively modern setting of the triangle story; I would have started looking for ways it connected to or counterpointed the Hungarian writer's story, but the jacket copy headed me off at the pass. It would have been more fun, I think, not to have known it was the Hungarian writer's work until the novel revealed that circumstance. So what is one to do? Not read jacket copy?

The jacket copy continues, "The third voice is that of a friend from the writer's childhood, who brings his own unexpected bearing to the story." Well... kinda. The third strand, set in the 1950s in the writer's home town or village, is mainly narrated by the Hungarian writer, and so is all about the person who went on to have the complicated affair in Berlin--but only the final chapter in this strand, the book's penultimate chapter, is narrated by the friend referred to in the jacket copy, for reasons that would require a spoiler alert. Almost all the third strand is in the voice of the main narrator, the Hungarian writer, so the jacket copy is actually a bit misleading. Jacket copy writers of the world, why do you fuck with our heads this way? Don't we people willing to take a chance on an enormous Hungarian novel deserve a little better?

Friday, June 2, 2017

Susan Howe, _My Emily Dickinson_

HERE'S THE QUESTION: should I shelve this with my Emily Dickinson books or with my Susan Howe books?

As a general rule, a book by a poet about another poet tells you much more about the written-by poet than it does about the written-of poet. As an extreme case, take Yeats. His essays on Blake and Shelley (and going beyond poetry, his essays on Synge and Balzac) provide abundant insight into Yeats's own poetics, but will leave you little the wiser about Blake and Shelley. Eliot aimed at a more objective, scholarly tone, as befitted someone writing for the Times Literary Supplement, but his essays on Milton, Tennyson, and the metaphysical poets tell you a lot more about Eliot's poetics than they do about those of his putative subjects. Even the generous, self-effacing Seamus Heaney--Heaney on Robert Lowell turns out to be really about Heaney.

Possible exceptions: Randall Jarrell and Stephen Burt. Pound, once in a while.

Generally, though…would anyone except a library put Ted Hughes's Shakespeare book in the Shakespeare section?

So, might as well take the personal pronoun in Howe's title seriously and put My Emily Dickinson with my other Susan Howe books.


Howe explicitly posits her book as being in dialogue with Dickinson criticism circa 1985; she sees it filling an obvious gap: "The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson by Jay Leyda, and Richard Sewell's meticulously researched Life of Emily Dickinson, are invaluable sources of information about her living, but the way to understand her writing is through her reading. This sort of study, standard for most male poets of her stature, is only recently beginning." Ruth Miller, Joanne Feit Diehl, and Albert Gelpi have gotten this work going, Howe writes, and she is taking it further.

In short--My Emily Dickinson does for "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun" what John Livingston Lowes's Road to Xanadu did for Rime of the Ancient Mariner and "Kublai Khan." (Do people still read Lowes? I notice the book is out of print. It is available on Kindle, though.) Howe situates the tone and imagery of Dickinson's poem in the imaginative context created by Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," Shakespeare's King Lear and the first English history tetralogy, and Cooper's The Deerslayer, to list only those that come up most often.

This is illuminating. While it makes sense to read the text of a writer in more immediate kinds of context--what were the theological conversations in Amherst about in 1862? what was the latest news of the war? what was going on in her family?--it is also true that some important part of a writer lives in the world of writing, not so confined by space or time or circumstances. The poet who rarely left her house, whose life seemed so circumscribed, could even so be in a momentous conversation with great writers long dead.

So, there's a case for placing My Emily Dickinson with Sewell, Cristanne Miller, Helen Vender, et al. on the Dickinson shelf.


Was Lowes--or any critic--ever so quicksilver in mapping the terrain as this?-- "During the first two Removes of Emily Killdoe's Captivity Narrative of Discovery; the unmentioned sun, blazing its mythopoeic kinship with Sovreign and shooting its rhyme,--flash of sympathy with Gun, has been steadily declining."

Among the plates Howe keeps spinning here (discussing lines 5-6 of "My Life had stood--") are not only Shakespeare and Cooper but also Mary Rowlandson and even a little bit of Lewis and Clark. Don't blink while reading My Emily Dickinson, in other words; its un-skimmable. Rather like a poem, in fact.

Then there are the lightning flashes of Howe's poetics:

A lyric poet hunts after some still unmotivated musical wild of the Mind's world.

Connections between unconnected things are the unreal reality of poetry.

I think My Emily Dickinson needs to be with The Europe of Trusts, The Birth-mark and Singularities after all.