Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Traci Brimhall, _Saudade_

SO, SUPPOSE YOU took Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah, in which a narrative of a marriage is suggested by paired sets of lyric poems--a narrative furthermore sometimes in the shadow of the history lived by African-Americans in the middle decades of the 20th century--if, as I was saying, you took Thomas and Beulah and set it in Brazil amid some of the darker moments of that country's history, but added a couple of layers of generations, and added a little Macondo ("time passes and all the children born of the boto are named Maria")... and then, for the finishing touch, got a good dose of ayahuasca down its throat... what you would get might well be a lot like Saudade.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Lucie Brock-Broido, becoming her admirers

“He became his admirers,” wrote W. H. Auden in his elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” describing the day the Yeats died. Some part of Yeats, in other words, continued to exist so long as people admired—read, discussed, inspired others to read—his poems. 
Lucie Brock-Broido became her admirers on March 6, 2018. In her case, that group consisted mainly of fellow poets. Brock-Broido did not do the sorts of things that gain poets admirers among the large reading public that does not read much poetry. She did not write a novel, or a memoir, or essays for Harpersor the New York Review of Books; she did not take any conspicuous positions on public questions or serve as spokesperson for a cause; she did not even win a major award, although she was short-listed regularly. She devoted herself to writing poetry and to teaching (her students are an important sub-set of her admirers).
Devoted to the writing of poetry though she was, Brock-Broido was not prolific. She published four collections during her lifetime, just a fraction of the production of John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin, or Jorie Graham. Those four books may nonetheless be enough to generate admiration for a long time to come. They contain hardly a poem—hardly a line—of less than the first intensity, and moreover they seem all by themselves to constitute a completed arc: the youthful  dazzle and confidence of A Hunger (1988), the flowering of mature ambition in The Master Letters (1995), the more difficult, more personal austerity of Trouble in Mind (2004), and finally Stay, Illusion (2013), a work of power and authority, though of a peculiar kind, the kind of power or authority that questions its own premises.
The title, itself suggestive of power and authority, comes from Hamlet. The imperative, spoken by Horatio to the departing ghost of Hamlet's father, both declares the ghost to be unreal and assumes it can be arrested by a command. But if the ghost is not real, how can it obey a command? Does it recognize any authority? Does it have power over even its own actions?
In the play, we soon learn that the ghost has commands of its own, acts that it desires to see performed. But it cannot perform them itself. It must rely on agents to act on its behalf, and moreover, it must rely on their love.  "If ever thou didst thy father love," the ghost tells Hamlet, "avenge his foul and most unnatural murder." The ghost has, as it were, become his admirers.
The ghost in this respect evokes poetry itself, somehow powerful even though, as Auden went on to remark in his Yeats elegy, it "makes nothing happen." Re-reading Stay, Illusion now, it seems  uncannily to be already addressing the poet's passing. Brock-Broido's poems were always aware of mortality, certainly, and the elegiac was one of her characteristic modes; what is new here is a sense of being at the bar of judgment. "Who was I--" one poem begins, a poem whose title, "Selected Poem," alludes to one way that poems find admirers (as the title of another, "Uncollected Poem," alludes to the phenomenon of a poet's admirers seeing into print work that the poet may not have wished to publish).
"I cringe to think I stood for nothing," we read in one poem. "For whom left am I first?" asks another. Charges are levelled; someone has failed to use to its fullest what she was given: "How dare you come home from your factory / Of autumns, your slaughterhouse, weathered /And incurious, with your hair bound / Loosely, not making use / Of every single part of the horse/ that was given you," we read in "Contributor's Note," and "Lucid Interval" chides, "Don't be so fanciful. If you'd add those mustard-family / vegetables to the pot roast / It would feed so many more"--as if Brock-Broido were telling herself that if she had been a little more down-to-earth, her work would have been read on Writers’ Almanac. Nonetheless, "Non-Fiction Poem" declares that the poet can take pride in her body of work: "Have I ever—even once—been disingenuous, not told you / Of the truth and nothing but."
As in Hamlet's most famous speech, the idea of an afterlife bobs up. "One thing. One thing. One thing. / Tell me there is / a meadow, afterward," one poem states, even while another suggests that what we have here should suffice: "My heart's desire would be only to desire, but not to grasp. / And not by yonder blessed celestial anything I swear." "Extreme Wisteria" is a kind of résumé for an unnamed "her" who, we are told, "Believed, despite all evidence, / In afterlife, looked helplessly for corroborating evidence of such." 
Brock-Broido now knows whatever there is to know about the general afterlife. About the more particular afterlife of a poet, that is in the custody of her admirers, a group any reader who genuinely cares for poetry should consider joining.

Anne Carson, _Glass, Irony & God_

THE FIRST BOOK by Carson I read was Autobiography of Red, and I have basically kept up since then without ever getting around to exploring the back catalogue. That is, until now, and so I am thinking what a fool I was not to get around to it sooner. Glass, Irony & God leapfrogged right over everything else to become my favorite Carson volume.

As in her other work, the poems here reflect her co-vocation as scholar, and as in her other work the scholarship is lightly carried, never throwing the poem out of equilibrium, and never losing a lyrical quality. It's almost as though she were the last of the High modernists--which makes it stunningly appropriate that the book is introduced by Guy Davenport, the then (1995) reigning Last High modernist. The torch is passed.

Eliot and Pound were rarely as funny and never as self-deprecating as Carson can be, though, to say nothing of their being less acute about gender questions by several orders of magnitude.

And that's one of her paintings on the cover.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

David Runciman, _How Democracy Ends_

THERE IS SUCH a spate of these--Fascism: A Warning by Madeline Albright, How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky, On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder--that I figured I should read at least one. I went with Runciman because The Confidence Trap was one of my favorite books of 2014. It was the right call.

Once again Runciman enlightens by doing an end run around the congested areas of the conversation. Is our moment like the 1930s? We've heard a lot about how it is, but Runciman advises we look instead at the 1890s, with its own economic crash, its own populist insurgencies, and its own nativist anxieties (e.g., the Dreyfus Affair). It was "the great age of conspiracy theories" and a time of technological upheaval. I was convinced.

Democracy found a way to save its own bacon in the 1890s with an energized progressive movement--Runciman mentions not just Teddy Roosevelt, but David Lloyd George and Jean Jaurès.  Could it happen again? Well, maybe.

Plenty are skeptical about democracy's ability to address slowly-unfolding catastrophes like climate change, since it will always be in democratic politicians' short-term interests not to disrupt long-established patterns of production and consumption, but Runciman finds reason for hope in democracy having found a way (thus far) to avert nuclear destruction. I don't know if we can give democracy all the credit for this, since the Soviet Union and China, neither one a democracy, had as much to do with averting nuclear holocaust as the democracies did, no? But it does suggest democracy has deeper resources than we think.

Runciman is less optimistic about whether democracy can survive our age of the internet giants, though. Will Facebook, Google, and Amazon eventually decide that they ought to run everything, and furthermore, be able to do so? Will AI, once achieved, decide it ought to be running things, like 2001's HAL? Is this the new Leviathan?

Runciman is not as worried about Trump as some, nor as alarmed by the Brexit vote, but he is none too sanguine about long-term prospects for democracy: "Western democracy will survive its mid-life crisis. With luck, it will be a little chastened by it. It is unlikely too be revived by it. This is not, after all, the end of democracy. But this is how democracy ends."


Bit of a downer, that conclusion.

Nice shout-out to Roth and The Plot Against America in the "Further Reading" appendix, though: "Even in the age of Trump, I don't think Roth's alternative past is our collective future. Still it is one of the scariest and most compelling works of fiction I have ever read."

The outlook is bleak. In the meantime, I should really read Roth through again.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Sam Sax, _Bury It_

I HAD PASSING doubts about this as I was reading it, but it kept defeating those doubts.

What doubts? you may be wondering. First, the cover notes that Sax was "two-time Bay Area Grand Slam Champion," and while I often enjoy slam performances, it seems to me that the urgency and rhythmic invention of a good slam performance typically fail to make their way onto the printed page. They succeed in this case, though.

was it the times, was it the tyrants,
was it the man murdered in his bed
besides his wife, the price of food,
the burning rubber forests, the boys
sent across the world to die?

 ("The Weather Underground")

While I imagine that passage would be riveting in performance, it is also riveting to read: a concise summary of the events that might have radicalized youth politics circa 1969--the death of (I assume) Fred Hampton, Vietnam--lit up with alliteration, headlong syntax, the imagery of the brutality of authority.

Second, as I mentioned in passing in the previous post, Sax often writes about edgy life circumstances: taking drugs, selling drugs, selling one's body, unprotected sex, sex with strangers, unprotected sex with strangers, suicide. Now, some writers who deal with edgy, transgressive content entrust the whole labor of creating readerly interest to that same edgy, transgressive content. That is, they seem to feel that because they are providing a glimpse of a world grimly fascinating in and of itself, they are under no obligation to pay attention to style or structure, to be original, to be nuanced. I don't want to mention any names--it's just that I was just briefly worried that Sax was going to let himself coast in this fashion. He does not.

The five main sections of the books are titled "Rope," "Draw," "Stone," "Toll," and "Suspension," which after a while I realized are all different kinds of bridge, an image I then realized figures several places in the book as a way of suggesting both connection and separation, and furthermore is a frequent site of suicide. The instance of Tyler Clementi, the young gay cyber-bullied man who jumped off the George Washington Bridge, is remembered in "Surveillance," those of many other young gay men in "Gay Boys & the Bridges Who Love Them" and "Bridges" (about the Golden Gate Bridge), and, somewhat surprisingly, that of John Berryman, who leapt from the Washington Avenue Bridge connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul in 1972, in "Objectophile" ("the man stretched  / between two cold cities").

(Sax also has a poem about the collapse of the I-35W bridge between Minneapolis and Saint Paul; as a midwesterner, I am grateful that he did not decide to mention the east coast bridge and the west coast bridge and leave it at that.)

The book's opening poem, one of two titled "Will," imagines the drowned bodies of the suicides brought to the surface, as a fisherman "feels something bite below the river / & pulls up boy, / after boy, / after boy, / [...]". The phrase "after boy" is repeated fifty times, an effect that must be unnerving in performance, when the audience would not be able to simply turn the page and skip to the end.

The book is dedicated "for my family / blood & otherwise." That "otherwise" is picked up later ("my family in under surveillance. / the king / must die") and suggests the new queer sensibility in American letters is stepping out of zine-and-chapbook world and into the prizes-and-endowed-chairs world. But Sax, having once hustled, might see becoming an established poet as just another hustle: "i was paid a thousand dollars for writing a poem about a dead man who hated me / i was paid and each dollar is a ghost haunting my wallet" ("Politics of Elegy").

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Nikki Wallschlaeger, _Crawlspace, pt. 2; Anders Carlson-Wee; Sam Sax

I PURCHASED CRAWLSPACE because I liked a poem by Wallschlaeger that was published in The Nation--"It's a Daisy." "It's a Daisy" (not in this volume) and quite a few of the poems in Crawlspace draw on Wallschlaeger's experiences and perspective as an African-American woman; since I was reading the book at the same time as the furor over another poem published in The Nation, Anders Carlson-Wee's "How-To," I kept thinking about whether writers' identities set boundaries to who or what they can write about.

Carlson-Wee's poem draws on the experiences of the homeless and the vernacular of African-Americans, but he is neither African-American nor, apparently, homeless. Hence, in the view of many (some of whose letters appeared in the September 10/17 issue of The Nation), his poem is an appropriation, a claiming of what is not his to claim.

The magazine's poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, saw the point of the objections and apologized for publishing the poem. In a new statement in the same issue as the objecting letters, they stand by the apology.

That surprised me--I expected them to be a bit more staunch. I'm from an older generation, though--Grace Schulman's and Katha Pollitt's responses to the apology sounded right to me. But even Anders-Wee himself has apologized on Twitter: "I am sorry for the pain I have caused, and I take responsibility for that." If the poet himself is saying "My bad," I'm not sure where the grounds are for making the case for artistic liberty.

But--to return to Wallschlaeger--should I ascertain that she actually is an African-American woman before I endorse her poems? I mean, I'm reasonably sure she is. But if it turns out she isn't, does that de-legitimate the poems?

I just started reading Bury It by Sam Sax, whom I also first read in The Nation. A lot of the poems invoke a risk-embracing youth--drugs, unprotected sex with strangers. Do we need to know that Sax really did take drugs and have unprotected sex with strangers in order to find the poems worth our attention?

I don't actually feel like defending Carlson-Wee's poem all that much--I didn't think it was terrible, but I also did not feel inspired to search out his book(s). But the idea that poets and writers may only write from perspectives they have some sort of real-world claim to inhabiting--that no white woman should imagine herself into the perspective of Crazy Horse, no Irish poet write as a Holocaust survivor, no African-American take on the voice of Lao-Tse--is that sustainable? Wouldn't we be losing something valuable?

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Nikki Wallschlaeger, _Crawlspace_

A BOOK OF unrhymed sonnets, sometimes a bit Shakespearean (wallop in the final couplet), sometimes double or triple or even sextuple (last one in the volume). For me, the book was somewhat reminiscent of Laynie Browne's Daily Sonnets in its a wide tonal range; this page might be almost like a journal, that one an exploration of a memory, this other a surreal fantasy, that one tender, this one angry, this other funny.

Wallschläger is good at having one foot on the ground while also shooting through the stratosphere. For instance, #45:

             I get dizzy in burgy
grocery stores, the prattling is
Gargantuan Antarctica dialect,
do I feel grateful their husbands
are downtown working instead
of mildewing here with a loaded
handgun, they got yr handguns
you can buy them in the intestine
department [...]

We're in touch with the familiar here, in the aisles of a grocery store with the husbands downtown, but we've also got Rabelais at the South Pole, an intestine department, and the image of a firearm-carrying man growing fungus. Wallschlaeger's enjambment makes the most of these dramatic shifts of register, a bit like Coltrane, with his abstract sheets of sound leaping out of a Broadway show tune.