Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, March 30, 2018

Jorie Graham, _Fast_

THE OFFICIAL PUBLICATION date of Fast was May 2, 2017, coincidentally my birthday. I bought  it within a few weeks of that, but only read it a month ago.

I find myself wondering what I would have thought about the book had I read as soon as I bought it, because several poems are about the decline and death of Graham's father and several more are about her own cancer treatments, and, as it happens, my own father died last July and last December I was myself diagnosed with cancer (a very treatable kind). The book made a deep impression on me, but having read the book in the circumstances I did, I'm not sure whether the depth of that impression has to do with the poems themselves or with their being concerned with situations I have freshly experienced myself.

However one wants to account for it, I thought the book was superb. It affected me more than any Graham volume since Region of Unlikeness, I would say.  In some of her books on this side of the millennium--I'm thinking of Sea Change and Overlord--Graham seemed to be trying too assiduously to be the major American poet just about anyone would concede she is, as if she wanted to live up to her reputation but was finding that living up to it was a pain in the tush. This one, though, for me, is undeniably a great book by a major American poet, the kind that had me muttering "goddamn, that's good" every other page.

The jacket flap calls Fast "her most exhilarating, personal, and formally inventive [collection] to date." Maybe that's it, but I dunno. I wouldn't call it exhilarating, I know that. I felt like she was engraving something on my bones. Most personal? It is personal, but so was The Errancy, wasn't it?

Most formally inventive...yes, there is some striking technique going on. I was noticing a lot of what I think of as a J. H. Prynne device, several long lines flush left, then a few much shorter lines placed well to the right; someone needs to analyze what this does, because it is certainly doing something, and the weird burst of speed it imparts delivers an unusual kick. Graham is really good at it. But is she at her most formally inventive here? I wouldn't sign off on that, given what we've seen from her already.

So, I'm not sure why I feel this way, and it might just be me, but I think this is the real thing, a classic.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Laura Kipnis on Lynne Tillman

WHILE I AM generally pleased to see so many new bylines in  the New York Review of Books under new editor Ian Buruma, I hope I will not be seeing that of Laura Kipnis often if her review of Lynne Tillman represents her typical approach.

Her first paragraph ends, "I suspect that revering writers does them no favors, but don't worry, this isn't the setup for a hit job." But I say unto you: Worry. This is a setup for a hit job. That sentence is only the first of several instances of disingenuousness.

Far too much of the review is devoted to making an invidious distinction between "downtown" writers, like Tillman, and "uptown" writers, like Kipnis. Uptown writers are rigorously edited while downtown writers are not, Kipnis explains, with the result that downtown writers, who think of themselves as avant-garde and uncompromising, are actually prolix, self-indulgent, and tiresome.

So there, I guess.

This sort of thing just does not belong in the NYRB. Venting is fine in a blog, but in the NYRB I hope to find something a little more cool and considered. I've read many a takedown in the NYRB, but they never had the oniony anti-intellectual rankness that this one does.

And speaking of editing, would "by the ton," "fount of wisdom," "set the world on fire," and "with the best of them" have gotten by Barbara Epstein? No. No, no, no.