Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Cole Swensen, _Try_

FROM 1999. ONE intriguing thing about Try is that all the poems are in the ekphrastic tradition and yet the main overall impression (for me) had to do with sound, a sensory possibility that paintings and sculptures do not possess. They can be seen, of course, and touched if the guard is not looking ("I touched the surface of the canvas," p. 14--one poem, however, is called "Noli Me Tangere"), even smelled or tasted, but not heard. But Try is often about structures made with sound.

For one thing, the sections of the book have titles that contain a variant of the volume title's monosyllable: e.g., "Trilogy," "Triad," Triage," and so on. The titles create both a phonetic and semantic connection with three-ness, which has a structural equivalent in the titled sections having three poems apiece, not to mention the resonances set echoing with section titles like "Triptych" and "Trinity" which involve not only three-ness but the Christian-themed art that most of the poems are facing.

Then there are all the local effects of sound, of which I hope one example will do for the many that could be cited: "and I saw someone leave and I saw the world that thrives on light clench and cleave."

Poetry preoccupied with sound is a familiar phenomenon, I know, but in this context, in poems taking on resolutely silent paintings and sculptures...it was if the poems were calmly telling you, "in order to give you any useful idea of this painting, I will have to very much be a poem."

As occurred to me with Mary Hickman's Rayfish, ekphrastic poetry seems ideal for the internet era, as a reader can now read the poem, find images of the painting or sculpture, and re-read the poem...this paid off handsomely with Swensen's poems on Rodin's "Christ and the Magdalene."

The internet could not tell me, however, whether the final clause of "Here," on p. 28--"the tip of a foot that won't sink back into the painting"--was an allusion to Balzac's Le Chef-d'oeuvre Inconnu, but I suspect it is.

By the way, I am annoyed that "Swensen" auto-corrects  to "Swenson." That "rayfish" auto-corrects to "raffish" has a certain charm but is still a pain.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cole Swensen, _Ours_

THE FRENCH FOR "ours" is "le nôtre," which happens also to be the name of the great master of the French formal garden, André le Nôtre, designer of the garden at Versailles and a few other spectacular examples.

Le Nôtre figures in a costume drama of 2014, A Little Chaos, and also in this volume from 2008. So he's doing pretty well, I'd say. Does Frederick Law Olmstead have a book of poetry and a film? Not that I know of.

Ours is, I would say, a little harder to get into than the other Swensen volumes I've been reading. Partly because the font is tiny. But even if one is a fan of le grand siècle, as I am, the backstory of its gardens is, I suspect, one of the last of the tastes one acquires.

Nonetheless, some interesting ideas circulate. From where, given its scale, does one view such a garden? "The initial impression must be from a height; but only half / that which is gained from the opposite extremity, looking back." Given its size and its symmetries, could the French formal garden only truly be admired after the invention of the hot air balloon? Then there is the question of who one has to be to view the garden, for it was clearly all about Louis XIV. You or I can see Versailles now, but at the time it was built, it was built for particular eyes.

As always, Swensen finds the right sound for the book, a little formal (le grand siècle loved rhyme) but still with its slippages, vanishings, and strangenesses:

It was Henri III

Who shocked in a mirror

Ran into a man 
on the end of a knife, and it was here that the Comte de Sancerre
Began his long travels backward
                                                      Because a saint somewhere
Left a rollerskate on the stairs

Devoney Looser, _The Making of Jane Austen_

A PROMISING PREMISE--Looser is looking at the reputation of Jane Austen over the last two hundred years as reflected in phenomena beyond the critical or academic tradition: book illustrations, travel guides to Austen country, theatrical adaptations both amateur and professional, the 1940 film with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. The Idea of Jane as bricolage, with thousands of contributors.

She turns up some interesting finds. The 1935 stage version (not Colin Firth) probably inaugurates the tradition of a sexy Darcy; both suffragists and anti-suffragists claimed Austen as ally. William Henry George Pellew wrote the first dissertation on Austen in 1883 and sent a copy to Henry James.

The book never gets airborne, though, somehow, It puts one in mind of the Old Historicism, the pre-Greenblatt kind. An extraordinary amount of time in the archives has been logged, but nothing very audacious is asserted, and the picture of how Jane Austen became Jane Austen is left little more illuminated than it was.

What is clear from Looser's account is that devotion to Jane has been around for quite a while. The process began fairly early--1870, the date of Austen-Leigh's memoir, is sometimes cited as Year One of the Austen renaissance, but Looser demonstrates it was well established by then--and people were surprised by its extent and robustness from as early as the 1890s. This generation's boom of film and television adaptations was preceded by an earlier generation's boom of stage adaptations.

But why Austen rather than, I don't know, Frances Burney? Maria Edgeworth? Or even George Sand? What would Charlotte Brontë think if she knew that Austen was much more widely read, even in France, than George Sand? (On the French Amazon, Orgueil et prejugés has 376 reviews, La mare au diable 47.)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Cole Swensen, _Gravesend_

WE COULD DO a lot worse than Cole Swensen as Greatest Living American Poet, actually. Just read this from 2012 as part of a general march backward from On Walking On, and it's another good one.

This one too has a conceptual center, reads as a project. It's organized around three questions:

1) Have you ever seen a ghost?
2) How did Gravesend get its name?
3) What do you think a ghost is?

As with Gave and On Walking On, I liked the way Swensen folded history and tradition in with what comes across as direct observation/reportage. The form is sometimes reminiscent of D. A. Powell, I'd say, but the fissures into which the syntax sometimes disappears, the way the resultant gaps structure the discourse, seem more Swensenian than anything else.

She's not really a very excerpt-able poet, but the final section has a lot of poems I think would work well on their own: "Cicatrice," "Traveling Ghost," "And Are Ghosts," "Haint Blue," and this one, just called "Ghosts":

are houses.      (The places we exceed ourselves can live.)     And every house
is a guest.     I live in an old one.      I watch it move.        "I am moved," I say
at inappropriate times. And then must say "I'm sorry"      though not to whom

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Elizabeth Strout, _My Name Is Lucy Barton_

THE BOOK CLUB selection for October...I'm not sure why we never read Olive Kittredge, seeing as it is exactly the sort of thing we typically read, but somehow we did not, so this is my first Strout.

Lucy Barton, the narrator, is a writer recalling a lengthy hospitalization in the early 1980s, when she was living in New York City, married with two elementary school age daughters, and not yet established as a writer. Her mother comes out from the small Illinois town where Lucy grew up to keep her company in the hospital.

The mother's visit is the core of the book. One reads expecting some big reveal or outpouring to occur in the conversations between mother and daughter, but nothing quite so dramatic happens. The mother has some inhibition about saying "I love you," and the daughter is not much more forthcoming, so the anticipated opening up or revelation never occurs.

We do find out that  Lucy's childhood was grim, marked by the humiliations of poverty and the deeply disturbing behavior of her father, a traumatized WW II veteran. Her present is somewhat under a shadow, too, as we find out her marriage ends in about ten years time and there are strains in her relationships with her daughters. Her reasons for devoting a book to her mother's extended visit never become explicit, though.

Our (that is, the book club's) best guess arises from a weird little metafictional wormhole. Lucy accidentally meets, then attends a panel featuring, and finally participates in a workshop led by Sarah Payne, a writer Lucy admires but whom "New York just doesn't like." The encounters with Sarah Payne get Lucy writing seriously; the manuscript she brings to the workshop, and about which Payne offers crucial advice, is an early version of My Name Is Lucy Barton.  Something about the conjunction of the mother's visit with the encounters with the female artistic mentor turns Lucy from aspiring writer into writer.

The nature of that something is elusive...to tell the truth, I did not much enjoy My Name Is Lucy Barton. But most of the club did.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

"Greatest Living American Poet"

FUNNY THING. Here I have been thinking that Ashbery's career marked a kind of terminus to the idea of "greatest living American poet," seeing as how (1) he did nothing to embrace the role and (2) a great many people even within the restricted number of people who have an investment in poetry seem never to have thought about him (e.g., Garrison Keillor) and (3) he doesn't have a "Road Not Taken" or even a "Skunk Hour" that might nail down a spot in curriculum.

I have also been thinking that, all in all, saying goodbye to the idea of "greatest living American poet" was a good thing, given that thinking one is king of the cats probably does one's work no good at all, ordinarily (see Lowell or Ted Hughes).

Then, in Luc Sante's memorial piece on Ashbery in NYRB (Oct. 12, 2017), what does he do but declare that Ashbery "was considered, by general acclaim, the greatest living American poet."

Well. I mean, I suppose he was, if we need to designate someone. But part of the example and legacy of Ashbery is that poetry is too unmappable a territory to have a single greatest living practitioner. It bothers me that Sante hung the tag on him.

Does this mean we are going to have a new greatest living American poet? But consider the field. Let's consider Jorie Graham, Mary Oliver, and Alice Notley...see what I mean? Can one even make any comparison? Isn't Graham, Oliver, and Notley apples, oranges, and lemons? If you throw in Merwin, Silliman, and Billy Collins, we have whole new dimensions of incommensurability.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Cole Swensen, _On Walking On_

HER SECOND BOOK of 2017, after Gave. I've written about this one already in a more respectable precinct of the web and am likely to repeat myself...oh well, what the heck. If you can imagine a fairly lengthy essay on writers who have written about walking, from Chaucer to Lisa Robertson (intermediate stops including Rousseau, both Wordsworths, Thoreau, Sand, Woolf, Walser, Sebald, and several others), except that the essay is a poem, interspersed with prose poems about a few of the poet's own walks...it's like that.

The problem is, my description of it does not make it sound very interesting, but it is.

Not only that--I keep thinking that Landscape on a Train, Gave, and this one constitute a kind of project about motion in landscape. This may partly be from my having read them one right after the other, but the thought keep teasing me nonetheless. Still, they certainly don't sound the same--the music (if I may call it that) is different from book to book, the rhythm is different, the palette (if I may call it that) is different, even the voice is different.

Feels odd to go from reading a whole lot o' Lowell this summer to this immersion in Swenson, who does not have a lot in common with him. Feels good, though.

John Ashbery, _Commotion of the Birds_

COINCIDENTALLY, I WAS about halfway through this when I heard Ashbery had died.

It has the characteristic virtues of 21st century Ashbery, which, rather like 21st century Dylan, may not dazzle as some of the earlier work did but remains worthwhile, adding meaningfully to the corpus.

Thinking back to what I said of Robert Lowell and Laynie Browne a few posts back, it seems to me now that Ashbery is one reason, maybe even the main reason, why we are less likely to think in terms of "America's greatest poet" these days. He seems to have renounced any interest in such a designation as long ago as The Tennis Court Oath, and even when he had as good a reason as anyone to claim the title, back in the days of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and anointing by Harold Bloom, he always seemed indifferent to the whole business. If not downright allergic to it.

A healthy thing, really. One of the great many reasons to be grateful for him.

Laline Paull, _The Bees_

THE AUGUST SELECTION of our book club. I was not expecting to enjoy it much, but it turned out to be likable enough. It put me in mind of the praise Samuel Johnson bestowed on Pope's Rape of the Lock, that "new things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new."

The main story of The Bees is the familiar archetype of the coming of age and mature accomplishments of a society's hero/savior: obscure birth, precocious achievement, early mentors, struggles for recognition, contending with envious rivals, journey or exile, dangerous encounters, temptations, eventual return and triumph, death. Very Hero with a Thousand Faces, we might say.

This storyline is made new in part by making the hero female, but the major twist is that the protagonist is a bee.

Flora 707 is hatched a lowly janitorial bee, but soon shows an astonishing range of talents, eventually mastering nearly every task in the hive and successfully navigating its ruthless class hierarchy. She may carry an interloping genetic strain--there are glancing references to bees from more southerly climes--but more importantly she is a Lean In kind of bee, ready to take on invading wasps, unfamiliar foraging territory, and even such absolutely prohibited acts as laying eggs (only the queen may lay eggs).

By the end of the novel, the aging queen is near death, the hive crumbling...who will take the swarm into the challenges of the future?

Not Flora 707, actually, as things turns out, though she plays a crucial pivotal role.

I have no idea how closely based any of the novel is on the actual lives of bees. But the newness of the setting made the familiar coming-of-the-savior story a lot more engaging than it might have been. The Bees would make a dandy graphic novel, I think.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Cole Swensen, _Gave_

NOT THE PAST tense of "give," in this case, but a river in southwest France, the Gave de Pau. Like Landscapes on a Train, worth reading in one go if you can manage it, and like that volume too in its pondering of what it means to move and what it means to stand still.

You walk alongside the river. No; you walk always with. Not down, or along, or beside. And you can't help but measure--is it moving faster? And does that mean each molecule of wtaer? Or does a body of water form internal bodies, pockets that move in counterpoint, in back-beat, in eddies? And does the surface ever move? Or is it something underneath that does?

The river is moving constantly, yet also in another way exactly where it has been for centuries. After all, it has a history traceable in the histories of the towns on its banks, which also come in for some attention in the poem. They too are basically where they have long been--but are they the same cities they were? They have moved along in time as the river's water has moved along in its current, the town arriving in its Now as the river arrives at the ocean...except "the river doesn't end / in the sea."

What? But then you think, she's right. It does not end in the sea because in some respects it is still right there beside the town: "rivers so / often seem to run, but / there's a part of them / that never moves again / in their stones."

The phrase "philosophical poem" suggests heavy lifting, effort and aridity, wrestling in a sand dune. Somehow, Swensen a provides a phenomenological meditation that is never anything but swift and nimble-footed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Cole Swensen, _Landscapes on a Train_

I WOULD RECOMMEND that you read this in a single sitting if you can. I did--found it hard not to, actually--and it does have that train-ride effect of a phenomenon that separates itself from all else for however long it lasts, a kind of capsule in time.

A lot of the effect is due to images that recur in never-quite-the-same sequences, as in Lisa Robertson's The Weather or Stein, often in the same staccato cadences as Stein but different somehow... a bit more lyrical lift, a brisker music? I don't know.

I wonder whether the poem involves a dialogue (so to speak) between the static and the moving. While on a train, one feels as though one is standing still, while actually hurtling forward at however many miles an hour; the landscape zipping by in the windows like a continuous filmstrip, its elements repeating with infinite variations and differences, is actually stationary. (Except that it is on a spinning ball in space...)

Maybe it's a cinematic quality--that feeling one has watching a movie, even a perfectly ordinary one, that you are in a self-contained experience suspending time, putting the rest of life on hold, and you are simply going to watch that movie until it's over. Landscapes on a Train is like that. Very unusual for a poem. How did she do it?