Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Chelsey Minnis, _Baby, I Don't Care_

I'M RELUCTANT TO talk about a book's design before I mention anything else, but the design in this instance (by Quemadura, which I think is Jeff Clark) is conspicuous.

It's a sizable book by poetry collection standards--about 250 6" x 8" pages--but the length is in large part accounted for by white space. Thirty-nine poems, generally six to eight five-line stanzas long--given ordinary typography, we would have a more normal 90-100 page book, I'm guessing. But here no page has more than two stanzas (ten lines), the title of each poem gets its own page, and the volume's title alone gets eight pages.

So, why? My guess: the design fetishizes the poetry a bit by surrounding with such an expanse of whiteness, which ironically highlights the ways the book is campaigning against the fetishization of poetry. As the title suggests, the poetry seems to be making an effort not to be taken seriously, even while the book's design suggests that one one to take the contents very seriously indeed.

I do not mean to suggest that Minnis is not a serious poet--only that here, as in Poemland, she seems to be throwing a snowball at poetry's silk hat, at various notions of decorum and dignity, at anything that seems over-earnest or po-faced or pompous about the enterprise.

The poems in Baby, I Don't Care seem all cut from the same cloth, not only in form (the five-line stanzas) but in tone and technique, a little bit as if Instagram poetry (with its colloquial language about the ups and down of amatory relationships) had been run through an Ashbery-izer (apparent non sequiturs that turn out to make all too much sense, surprising cultural reference points, acute self-awareness). Then imagine the whole thing read in a Marilyn Monroe voice.

Let's fall in love,
just the three of us.
Let's be objectionable and immoral and utterly no good.
Should we lie down right here and fight about it?
Now bring me  those dance instructions. ("Fun and Games")

"Do I mean things or not?" Minnis asks in "Breakdown." I would say no, she does not, unless she does, and that she keeps one guessing is what keeps one reading. The delights seem a little fewer and farther between than in Poemland, but that may just be an effect of the white space.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Helen DeWitt, _Some Trick_

SECOND INSTALLMENT IN my campaign to read more collections of short fiction. Having admired the two DeWitt novels I have read (The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods), I figured this was  a good bet, and it did not disappoint.

I spotted a recurring theme. Anyone pursuing an art needs an array of skills having to do with supporting oneself as an artist--not just covering rent and groceries, as we all do, but also dealing with gallery owners, foundations, publishers, universities, and so on in labyrinthine profusion. One might be extremely skilled in one's art and yet quite bad at the necessary auxiliary skills; by the same token, one might have a rare gift for the auxiliary skills without having any remarkable talent for one's art. Which is the better position to be in, do you think? Either way, tragedy looms.

Gil, the Boy from Iowa who become's everyone's right-hand man in "On the Town" due to his deftness at the auxiliary skills, has by the time of "Climbers" become a famous writer himself; his efforts to lend a hand to an obscure European writer's writer with zero auxiliary skills are both hilarious and painful to read about. A poker-playing music journalist winds up with the copyright to a mega-hit. A painter whose paintings find no takers discovers the clothes she made as a student dressmaker are inexplicably in demand--solving her cash flow problems, perhaps, until it turns out her internationally famous gallerist is a scam artist.

The book's real hallmark, though, is intelligence. Not only do the characters tend to be intelligent, the sorts of people who are comfortably conversant with histograms, Chopin, Botticelli, Barthes, and trigonometric identities, but the stories require the readers to stay on their toes. Like John Keen's Conjunctions, Some Trick would rather risk under-explaining than over-explaining; the reader gets all the needed information, but will have to do a certain amount of the adding-things-up on his or her own. It's stimulating to read a writer who asks quite a bit of you, even though this tendency may keep DeWitt out of the New Yorker (vide supra on auxiliary skills).

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Paul Muldoon, _One Thousand Things Worth Knowing_

WHEN I SAW that a new volume from Muldoon was due next month, I thought, crikey, I haven't read the last one yet. I checked its publication date--2015. Does it really take me four years to get around to reading even my favorite poets? Apparently so.

Muldoon is very Muldoonian here: sly, full of curious lore he connects in even more curious ways, the wickedest rhymer aboveground.

The volume's first poem, "Cuthbert and the Otters," is in memory of Seamus Heaney, and manages to touch a lot of Heaney bases (otters, Vikings, words like "darne," "smolt," and "thole") while remaining a poem only Muldoon could have written, Columbanus cheek-by-jowl with Lily Langtry and Erwin Rommel, a demanding stanza form he handles as effortlessly as a limerick, a narrative line that is all knuckleballs and change-ups.

Yes, I have been reading Tyler Kepner's history of baseball in ten pitches. (Didn't take me four years to get to that one!) I wonder--will Muldoon's long residence in the USA lead to him writing a poem or two about baseball? The sequence of poems here on the American Civil War gives me hope.

The volume ends with another long poem, "Dirty Data," this one even more reminiscent than "Cuthbert" of the classic Muldoon picaresques of the eighties, "Immram," "The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants." Nineteen sonnets, rhymed as only Muldoon can rhyme (e.g., "pecs" and "Rolex"), largely about Ben-Hur, book and film. Since the author of the novel, Lew Wallace, was a Civil War officer who later served as governor of New Mexico territory, "Dirty Data" also winds up mentioning the battle of Shiloh, and Billy the Kid, and the translation of Ben-Hur into Irish, and Bloody Sunday, and Lonnie Donegan and the skiffle craze, all woven together as naturally as you please. What, no Rommel? No, but we do get Winston Churchill.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Tayari Jones, _An American Marriage_

PART ONE FELT like an update of If Beale Street Could Talk--an African American couple separated due to the husband's wrongful incarceration. As in Baldwin's novel, there is a pregnancy (but terminated in this case), one of the couple is an artist (the woman in this case), and the narrative energy goes mainly into what is strained and what is enduring in their relationship, with due attention to their families.

Curveball coming up in Part Two, though. The woman, Celestial, falls in love with an old (but hitherto non-romantic) friend, Andre. Then, to everyone's surprise, efforts to overturn husband Roy's wrongful conviction succeed, and he is coming home, hoping to resume his rightful place, etc.

Jones changes the point of view from chapter to chapter, circulating among first-person narratives by Celestial, Roy, and Andre. This keeps things interesting, and her style is brilliant throughout, but things get unavoidably soapy once the triangular situation dominates.

Turns out Celestial and Roy were married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout, as in the old Johnny-and-June duet, but the fire has now gone out, as least for Celestial. But does she not owe poor Roy something? "In a way," Andre muses, "the whole black race was loyal to Roy, a man just down from the cross." Celestial resolves to go back to Roy out of duty. Roy, to his credit, decides he does not want the relationship on those terms, and gracefully gives way. Luckily, he too has someone from back in the day in his old hometown who is eager to heat things up again. So everyone is going to be all right, it appears.

What is American about this marriage, exactly? It's screenplay-ready, for one thing, and what is more American than that?

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Sam Lipsyte, _Hark_

OUR LEADING SATIRIST?  He may well be. Paul Beatty and George Saunders could give him a run for his money, but he's in my top three, certainly.

The title refers to the novel's central figure, Hark Morner, a self-help guru whose technique is "mental archery," a kind of mindfulness (focus on the target) plus yoga (followers do various bow poses) wrapped in a Zen/Emersonian discourse. The novel is largely from the points of view of the people around him, though, team-members and assistants from a variety of backgrounds who compete to be closer to the source while juggling the numerous and slippery elements of their private lives.

"Hark" is also an old way of saying "listen up," the cry of the prophet, and the novel repeatedly invokes religious tropes. Is Hark a messiah or a charlatan? A huckster or the real thing, whatever we suppose "real"is? The brilliant touch of the novel is that we don't exactly know, any more than those enthralled by Jesus, Muhammad, or for that matter L. Ron Hubbard knew. A lot of what Hark says at least seems profound, in the manner of Noah Eli Gordon's The Source, without our knowing whether it is as whipped-up-out-of-nothing as Gordon's brilliant pastiche. But do we ever know the difference between real and apparent profundity?

In the true satiric vein, no one in Hark is all that admirable; there is scarcely an unmixed motive to be found. Occasionally, a character seems to be getting somewhere, and a few rogue ions of integrity linger in the air after Hark exits from the narrative. Nothing is revealed, to quote his Bobness (speaking of figures who oscillate between messiah and charlatan), but Lipsyte's insight into American spirituality feels on target.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Jamel Brinkley, _A Lucky Man_

I DO NOT read enough short story collections, I told myself recently, and forthwith took steps, including reading one. Brinkley's first book, A Lucky Man was shortlisted for the National Book Award--not too shabby.

The stories are realist and basically mainstream in technique, though elegantly so. Most are about African-American characters in and around New York City, with occasional glimpses into aspects of that world I had never read about before such as J'ouvert, a holiday Brinkley renders with the hallucinatory clarity that Marcel Camus brought to the Mardi Gras scenes in Black Orpheus.

As with not a few first collections, the stories in A Lucky Man mostly look at characters in their childhood and youth; Brinkley does a particularly convincing job of catching the flavor of sibling rivalry. But the latter part of the book does an equally convincing job with characters past their prime. The title story is exactly that, about a man right on the threshold of a loss of capability and standing, and it is the most scrupulous anatomizing of that particular vulnerability I have read since William Trevor's "Access to the Children." If Brinkley is this good at telling the stories of older men now, while still a young writer, I wonder how good he is going to be in the future.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Meghan O'Gieblyn, _Interior States_

WINNER OF THE 2018 Believer magazine prize for non-fiction book, and an excellent choice. O'Gieblyn grew up in a Midwestern evangelical family. She was at the Moody Bible Institute training to be a missionary when the wheels suddenly came off her faith. A difficult period apparently followed--we don't learn much about it in this collection, but it involved lots of alcohol. The good news is that O'Gieblyn found her vocation, somehow, and turned into an excellent writer.

The excellence of the writing is reason enough to read the book, but I particularly enjoyed it because O'Gieblyn can write of middle American evangelical culture as a former insider, with sympathy, generosity, but also open-eyed clarity. This American species has been scrutinized and speculated about a great deal since the election of Trump, but far too often in a condescending, touristic, drop-in-take-notes-and-leave way. O'Gieblyn writes out of a strong blend of intimacy and critical distance, like Joan Didion writing about the Central Valley in Where I Was From. She has no illusions about what it is like out here, but we midwesterners are not just stereotypes to her--she's a bit like Thomas Frank in that way.

Her essay on Trump's appeal to evangelicals, "Exiled," is the best thing I have read on that subject--in fact, I would say it is the only really insightful piece I have read on the subject. American evangelicals (and some Catholics, and folks like Rod Dreher) have begun to see themselves as living in Babylon. How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land where gays can marry? Trump is Nebuchadnezzar, obviously not one of the Chosen People himself, but someone who might be swayed to allow space for the Chosen People  to live by their own law, if he heeds right-hand-man Daniel--that is, Mike Pence. I find this a lot more credible than thinking the evangelicals simply have not noticed or do not care that Trump is a mendacious, womanizing, vainglorious lout. But you can be all that and worse, and still be an instrument of the Lord, if you are willing to listen occasionally to Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar, indeed, is your only hope.

Jill Lepore, _The Secret History of Wonder Woman_

WONDER WOMAN HERSELF does not enter this story of her origin until the last of the book's three parts, on page 181, because the book is mainly about the creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, Ph.D., an only-in-America original if there ever was one. Sometimes he seems like a character who slipped out of Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance or Melville's Confidence Man.

Marston got a doctorate in psychology from Harvard in the 1920s, when the discipline was still relatively young, and was in on the development of the lie detector. Someone else, though, held the patent for the version of the device that eventually went into wide use, and Marston's academic career stumbled. He strikes me as the person who arrives with a stack of credentials and comes across as a human dynamo at a job interview, but turns out in time to be not all that competent, and who before you know it has become a genuine pain in the tush.

By the end of the 1930s, Marston had exhausted not only his academic opportunities, but some in Washington and Hollywood as well, and was not generating any income for his young and growing family...which, Lepore learned, was growing in an unconventional way, for Marston had persuaded his wife to let into the household Olive Byrne, a student with whom Marston had begun an affair at his last academic post.  Besides the three of them, there were four children, two born to Elizabeth Holloway Marston and two to Olive Byrne.

As if that were not interesting enough, Lepore also turned up the information that Olive Byrne was the niece of Margaret Sanger, the famous contraception activist. The Marston household was thus connected to the one of the more powerful currents of feminism of the time, the Greenwich Village radicalism of John Reed, the New Masses, Sacco and Vanzetti, etc. And yes, sure enough, it does turn out that Wonder Woman had an expressly feminist agenda. Marston was also, apparently, a bit into bondage, but we all have our foibles, no?

The takeaway: even though we have gotten used to thinking of American feminism as coming in waves, with interim periods in which it falls dormant, Wonder Woman goes to show that in the "trough" periods between waves American feminism does not go dormant, but goes underground, circulating secretly, occasionally erupting in a geyser in unexpected venues like comic books.

The fight for women's right hasn't come in waves, Lepore writes. Wonder Woman was a product of the suffragist, feminist, and birth control movements of the 1900s and 1910s and became a source of the women's liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The fight for women's rights has been a river, wending.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Carl Schmitt, _Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty_, trans. George Schwab

TOGETHER, TRANSLATOR GEORGE Schwab's introduction and Tracy Strong's foreword take up about fifty pages, only about ten fewer than the text itself. First published in 1922 and then revised in 1934, Political Theology is, Schwab notes, "perhaps the piece that best serves as an introduction" to Schmitt's thought, and since Schmitt joined the Nazi party in 1933, one promptly grasps why this key text may need a contextualization almost as long as the text itself. Whatever insight a Nazi political scientist may afford, you had best handle that insight with care.

I've heard that Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe led the way in the rediscovery (and reclamation, we might say) of Schmitt, but I wound up here mainly because of Giorgio Agamben. The "state of exception," a crucial concept for Agamben's Homo Sacer project, is a Schmittian one; further, in addressing "political theology" in The Kingdom and the Glory, Agamben often cites not only Schmitt himself, but also Erik Peterson, a theologian contemporary with Schmitt who engaged with Schmitt's thought in a very striking essay from 1935 that I just read last month, "Monotheism as a Political Problem." Clearly it was high time I looked at this book.

The "state of exception" idea arrives early, first sentence of chapter one: "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception." That is, logical as it may be to say simply that the party that gets to make the rules is that community's sovereign, the true sovereign is whoever it is that can decide to suspend the rules--that party has higher authority than the rules themselves.

Whose authority outranks that of the rule-makers? God's, people might have said once, or that of the church, which speaks for God. Not these days, though, a history I have been learning about as I attempt to scale the mountain that is Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Nonetheless, insofar as a society acknowledges and obeys an authority higher even than the authority of the rule-makers, it is trafficking in theology, even if there are no overt evocations of God. Hence the short book's other grenade, in the opening of chapter three:

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development--in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver--but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts.

That is, our secularization was not a thoroughgoing top-to-bottom new building, but a remodeling of the powerful structure that was already there. One consequence would be a willingness on our part to let an as-it-were god suspend, with impunity, our laws and constitution, as Hitler did.

Would we let Trump do this? A few of his supporters may see him that way, but I agree with what David Runciman wrote in the LRB just weeks after Trump's election in 2016, that the voters' "behavior too reflected their basic trust in the political system with which they were ostensibly so disgusted, because they believed it was capable of protecting them from the consequences of their choice." That is, folks voted for Trump to send a message of disgust with Washington, but do not actually want him to be sovereign, and are counting on Washington to make sure he doesn't become one. This all goes for Boris Johnson as well, of course.

Theologized politics also gives us an elect and a preterite--and we know how that is working out, do we not?




Saturday, August 24, 2019

Sally Rooney, _Normal People_

I WAS NOT expecting to like this as much as I liked the first one, that being how it so often goes (cf. Nell Zink, Zadie Smith, or even Thackeray, Woolf, and Forster as sophomore slumpers), but I actually liked it more.

Rooney, who came up with a strong complex first person narration in Conversations with Friends, this time goes with free indirect discourse, raising the stakes by alternating point of view between Connell and Marianne, an on-again, off-again couple who become lovers in their last year of secondary school and then are intermittently so throughout university (they both attend Trinity College in Dublin).

Marianne comes from a wealthier family than Connell does, so much so that Connell's mother cleans Marianne's family's house, and she is brilliant into the bargain, She would seem to have the edge in power within the relationship, setting us up for a peasant-wins-the-princess story. Hold on, though. Connell is a star footballer and handsome, so he runs with their school's A-listers, while Marianne is spooky and plain, and her family devotes serious effort to eroding her self-esteem. He is at the focal point of power in their school, Marianne a cold, eccentric satellite, so they keep their relationship secret to protect his reputation, and he asks another girl out for "Debs," which sounds roughly equivalent to senior prom. Marianne is still hurt, of course.

Off at university, though, the shoe is on the other foot. Wealthy, sophisticated, whip-smart, Marianne promptly becomes one of the cool kids, while Connell is just another striver from the provinces, a "culchie" (which sounds roughly equivalent to "redneck").  Nonetheless, the affair resurges. In a way.  Connell can't afford to stay in Dublin for the summer. Will wealthy Marianne offer to let him stay with her? Will he get up the gumption to ask?

No and no, so we're back on the rocks. The course of true love ne'er did run smooth, and Rooney is once again particularly good on how true love can fail to run smooth in the 21st century. "When I was in school," Connell's mother Lorraine sighs, "you were either going with someone or you weren't." Ah, those were the days. Even at novel's end, things between Connell and Marianne are a bit up in the air.  But hope hovers.

I would recommend Rooney to anyone looking for a contempoorary Jane Austen. Not so far as manners and mores go, to be sure. At a crucial moment, Connell has to decide how to respond to Marianne's sudden unveiling of a masochistoic tendency-- a problem no Austen hero ever faced (explicitly--we may wonder about Edmund Bertram). Unlikely , too, would be an Austen heroine who laments, as Marianne does, "I don't know what's wrong with me. I don't know why I can't be  like normal people." But for sheer narrative art, command of voice, and an all-encompassing novelistic eye--all the things that really make Jane Austen who she is (not the Empire dresses and tea sets of the films), Rooney has it.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Amy Fusselman, _Idiophone: An Essay_

IT SURPRISED ME to see this long-listed in The Believer as a best non-fiction book of 2018, because I was under the impression it was poetry. Granted, my recents for thinking it poetry were superficial, i.e., each sentence gets its own line. No hanging indents, true, but the lineation effect is strong, and despite the book's subtitle, the text's free associations, its leaps into fantasy, its flirting with anaphora, and its general imaginative mobility seem much more poetic than essayistic.

Classification does not matter all that much, I suppose, until is a question of awards. There is no Believer Prize, nor Pulitzer nor National Book Award, for Best Unclassifiable Text. But wouldn't it be great if there was?

Idiophone tellingly reflects on its own unclassifiability:

I have had my balls busted, I tell you.
I have had my balls busted by mice rejecting my work.
I have had my balls busted by mice who say, "This is a problem:
your writing is not short stories,
it is not a novel,
it is nonfiction but it is not the kind of nonfiction we are used to,
it doesn't sound like poetry,
Just put it in a box, would you?
Just put it in a box so w can contain it?"

An "idiophone" is "a any musical instrument that creates sound primarily by the instrument as a whole vibrating--without the use of strings or membranes" (Wikipedia), like a cymbal or a triangle or the "slit gong" carved from a breadfruit tree that Fusselman ponders throughout the book.

Idiophone itself, we might say, is idiophonic, its sound the sound made when Fusselman's sensibility is struck, so to speak, by a memory, by a fantasy, by a circumstance. It's a sound that sounds only like itself, as a gong sounds only like a gong, so Idiophone is not a book that will much remind you of any other book. It's easy to fall for, though, as compulsively readable as it is hard to classify. Whether it is considering The Nutcracker, baby bunnies as EMTs, the Talking Heads, or childrearing, the sound it returns when touched is distinctly its own.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Henry, _Words of Christ_ (2)

HENRY IS PARTIAL to the Gospel of John, for which he does some special pleading: "Whatever might be the date of its definitive and complete redaction, this Gospel comes, as the others, from a collection of early texts, without a doubt the most primitive." Without a doubt? I don't think any NT scholar thinks John represents the most primitive anything--certainly not in its opening statements, to which Henry gives particular attention. So Henry lost me a bit there, as he also did in making a very fine but elusive distinction between Parole and Verbe. Translator Christine Gschwandtner helpfully gives the original French whenever either term appears, but both translate as "Word," and it was not quite clear to me why Henry calls the Word Parole in one place but Verbe in another.

Those are my sole complaints, though. Every page, it seemed, had some startling idea that was new to me.

For instance--that much of what Jesus says just flat out contradicts common sense and best practices. The workers in the vineyard who arrived late get paid just as much as those who started at sunrise. What? Is that fair? I don't care what my mother or siblings want. That's cold. Love  your enemies. That's not going to work out, friend. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Right, sure. The last shall be first. Uh huh.

Time after time, "these words run counter to the the idea that we spontaneously form about ourselves and yet, at the same time, they kindle in us an acute awareness of the fragility of that idea." The sheer otherness of the teaching, its utter dissimilarity from what any sensible person would tell you, is for Henry an indication that it is not ultimately coming from a "person" at all.

Or Chapter 9, "The Difficulty for Humans to Hear Christ's Word," which for me seemed the perfect commentary on Milton's Satan.

Consequently, the I which constantly lives the extraordinary capacity of putting each of these powers [of being alive] into play whenever it wants, easily imagines itself to be their source. It thinks that it is itself who provides them, that it draws them in some manner from itself each time it exercises them. Source and grounding of all the powers which make up its being, it deems itself finally to be the source and the foundation of its very being.

This delusion, perfectly illustrated by Satan's recruiting speech in Book 6 of Paradise Lost, Henry goes on to call "the source of evil."

Speaking of Milton, I found myself wondering whether Henry wasn't just a bit of a Protestant. The book's finale is an analysis of the mass, so he's obviously Catholic, but when he writes, "The possibility for humans to hear the word of Christ in their hearts is precisely that of comprehending the Scriptures" (emphasis his), I had to wonder whether a little Lutheran sola scriptura had gotten into his thinking.

Finally--why the playground swing on the cover?

Monday, August 12, 2019

Michel Henry, _Words of Christ_, trans. Christina Gschwandtner (1)

NOT AT ALL sure I can do justice to this argument--not that that has stopped me before.

Henry argues that Jesus's own words, as  transmitted in the gospels, are convincing evidence that Jesus is what he says he is, i.e., the Christ, the son of God. Not because we can simply take Jesus at his word, but because, given what he talks about and how he talks about it, his claim to be divine is more plausible than other available explanations.

For a couple of reasons, I found this whole approach utterly unexpected and refreshing. First, I grew up in and am more or less still influenced by a liberal, mainline kind of post-Emersonian Protestantism that downplays (without quite dispensing with) the divinity of Jesus. Prophet, teacher, visionary, fighter for social justice, resister...Jesus is our guy, certainly, and we pray in his name, but we do not put that much emphasis on his being God, precisely. It's not so much that we deny his divinity as just prefer that it not come up.

Second, Henry is coming at the question not so much as a theologian as a phenomenologist, that being what Henry (1922-1002) was; he has a lengthy entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

So, we are talking about Being. The fundamental point about our being is that we know we are alive, we are participating and experiencing life, but we are incapable of sustaining this life we have all by ourselves. We need a continual intake of food, water, oxygen, for one thing, and then so on up Maslow's hierarchy. For another thing, the day will come to all of us when life, for all we can do, departs. We are endowed with and sustained in this astonishing thing, Being, by something not ourselves.

Another fundamental thing about our being is that there is an outside and an inside: experience involving the senses and interaction with things external to us, and another kind of experience that seems private, inaccessible to others--consciousness, reflection, thought. Here too a kind of otherness arises, as our thoughts do not simply mirror what we are presented with from outside, but seem capable adopting a configuration of their own.

Henry argues that Jesus seems perfectly cognizant of these and other aspects of Being, and has a unprecedentedly lucid account of why Being is the way it is. In fact, Jesus' intimacy with Being is so pronounced that ultimately the best explanation is that he is the author of Being. He understands it as completely as he does because he created it.

We'll have to pick this up later.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Sei Shonagon, _The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon_, trans. Ivan Morris

I READ THIS in the mid-to-late 1980s, right after I read The Tale of Genji; it hails from the same time and place, the Japanese royal court circa 1000 BCE. Though Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikubu, one reads, did not get along, the Pillow Book is the best place to go if you have finished Tale of Genji but still haven't had your fill of the subtleties of court life in Heian-kyo.

Having re-read Genji because I was curious about the new Royall Tyler translation, I found myself thinking about returning to this as well. As far as I know, there is no new translation of this--the Ivan Morris Penguin, with its extensive footnotes, is the same one I read back in the second Reagan administration--but I have had a new perspective on Sei Shonagon since encountering her in John D'Agata's anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay.

D'Agata is particularly interested in prose forms that dance with the poetic--not in having saturatedly lyrical language, which poetry rarely has these days in any case, but in having an oblique relation to representation, or by a surprising formal strategy, or in relying on the implicit...you get the idea. His anthology The Next American Essay contained an intriguing array of such pieces, all dating from recent decades. Lost Origins, his next anthology, looked for other examples of prose forms that engage the poetic, but going back to antiquity.  And there was where I re-encountered Sei Shonagon.

The Pillow Book engages poetry partly because poetry was so woven into the fabric of the court. Everyone was supposed to be able to write poems (sometimes on the spot), understand poems, quote poems, recognize allusions to famous poems...everyday was oral exam day in Heian-kyo. Sei Shonagon is always delighted to hear one of her poems landed well, that people were repeating it. She quotes poems regularly.

Beyond that, though, some of her entries might, with the right lens, be poems--not in her terms, but in ours. A good many of her entries are lists: "Things That Give a Clean Feeling," "Things That Give an Unclean Feeling" (a longer list), "Adorable Things" (a fairly long list, despite her being capable of considerable acerbity). I liked these lists the first time around, as they conjured up the court world in vivid detail, but reading them as a kind of poem (as D'Agata had persuaded me to do) made them even better. Let me quote "Things That Give a Clean Feeling" in its entirety:

An earthen cup. A new metal bowl.
A rush mat.
The play of the light on water as one pours it into a vessel.
A new wooden chest.

See what I mean? It was written just over a thousand years ago, but the imagist detail, the suppression of narrative, the juxtaposition of bare domestic items and that sudden "play of light"--if I came across this in a journal, I would check the contributors' list to see if this person had a book out. And she does--Sei Shoinagon's Pillow Book.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Steve Erickson, _Shadowbahn_

HOW DID I miss this guy? I bought this because I was fascinated by an interview Erickson gave in The Believer (February/March 2019), but he has been publishing for a long time. When the author bio on Shadowbahn noted that he had published in Conjunctions, I was even more surprised that I did  not know him. I have been reading Conjunctions faithfully since the 1990s--how did I miss him? I looked up a couple of his stories that had appeared there, and it turned out I had read them and liked them, just not followed up. My own fault.

Well, it's not too late. I'll just have to catch up.

So... Shadowbahn. It is set in 2021, and the Twin Towers materialize ghostlike in South Dakota. In one of the upper floors, a being materializes--it is Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis's stillborn older twin. (Jesse's previous most remarkable manifestation in our culture, I would say, was in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "Tupelo.") , Somehow, Jesse's materializing means that Elvis was never born.

A wide streak in the novel concerns the difference it makes that there was never an Elvis. For one thing, no Beatles--those Liverpool lads do form a rock'n'roll band, and do have a rambunctious residency in Hamburg, but the soil has not been prepared for American Beatlemania, so that never happens, and accordingly a key ingredient of the 1960s never happens. Speaking of key ingredients of the 1960s, JFK is never elected, either, as an un-Elvis-ified Democratic party decided to go with the older and more distinguished Adlai Stevenson in 1960. JFK leaves politics and winds up hanging out at Warhol's Factory, where....

...never mind, I'll save you a few surprises. Meanwhile, back in 2021, Parker and Zema, siblings but racially distinct (Zema was adopted), are on a cross-country car trip from LA to Chicago (yep, Route 66) when they revise their itinerary to include the newly-manifested Twin Towers. Crossing a landscape that has become politically fragmented--some regions have seceded as part of a movement called Disunion--they listen to their father's playlist of twinned songs. Their father is a music-obsessed novelist who, one guesses, bears a certain similarity to Steve Erickson.

The father's commentary on the playlist is--to put it simply--among the best writing I've read on rock/pop music in years. I would single out the chapter on Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" read against Bruce Springsteen's "Murder Incorporated"--had you, like me, failed to realize they were written in the same timeframe, and both alike not released until much later?--but they're all brilliant. Jesse's essay (he becomes a writer for the magazine Rolling Stone might have been had "rock" not happened) about encountering the Beatles in Hamburg is equally remarkable.

Erickson meditates throughout on what differences an event (one that happens or that does not happen) can make. It's an "alternative history" novel, in a way, but an unusually astute and self-aware one.


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Andrew Sean Greer, _Less_

WITTY AND LIKEABLE, but perhaps lightweight for a Pulitzer winner...? Maybe not.

Arthur Less, our main character, is a novelist who is about to turn fifty, whose publishers are taking a pass on his most recent novel, and whose lover is about to marry someone else. Teetering on the brink of a midlife crisis, he decides it is time to go around the world in eighty or so days. He cobbles together an itinerary with a variety of conferences, short-term teaching gigs, residencies, and other such writerly pursuits, and off he goes.

We are in the same territory as Rachel Cusk's Transit trilogy, but everything is in a more farcical vein. Less is a bit like Paul Pennyfeather in Waugh's Decline and Fall, someone to whom things happen rather than someone who makes things happen, and most of the novel is him riding the buffets of circumstance. Were this a Martin Amis novel (cf. The Information), Less would be satirically flayed down to his bones, but Greer is a bit more Armistead Maupin than Amis, so there is room to hope that things will work out well for Arthur Less.

And they do. I was expecting them to, but there was nonetheless a streak of ingenuity on Greer's part. The identity of the novel's first-person narrator is revealed in the final chapter, which is part of Less's happy ending, but the more interesting bit (I thought) was that narrator's unexpectedly musing on time, memory, and change, which, in conjunction with a plausible sounding anecdote about Less reading Proust, opened the novel out in a particularly thought-provoking way. A lively romp, then, but not just a lively romp.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Sy Montgomery, _The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness_

I READ THIS because (a) several friends liked it and (b) it was tipped in the acknowledgements of Brenda Shaughnessy's recent book. It's a swift and enlightening read, but I would dissent from the reviewer (quoted on the back of the paperback) who likened it to Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk. Macdonald's book often speaks to loss, frustration, need, fear, but Montgomery seems content to stay in better-lit, more familiar emotional territory.

Lots of amazing information about octopuses (octopodes?) here--their intelligence, their astonishing facility at expanding and contracting, their ability to change color and create camouflage. I had not known much of this, and Montgomery lays it out deftly.

The book often gets just chatty, though, in a way I did not enjoy. Montgomery spends quite a bit of space on her interactions with the staff and volunteers at the Boston Aquarium, where most of the book is set, but we do not ever find out very much about any one of them, so I found myself wishing I either hearing more about them or a lot less.

Similarly, Montgomery tells us a lot about some difficulties she had learning to scuba dive. Something could have been done with this, á la Macdonald, but then she gets the hang of things and dives...and I'm left to wonder, what was all that bother for? Did it need three pages?

I could have used a lot more like this:

But the ocean forces you to move more slowly, more purposefully, and yet more pliantly. By entering it, you are bathed in a grace and power you don't experience in air. To dive beneath the surface feels like entering the Earth's vast, dreaming subconscious. Submitting to its depths, its currents, its pressure, is both humbling and freeing.

A brilliant passage, no? Wouldn't you like to hear more about that? No such luck. Next sentence: "A half hour later, when my friends emerge, my ears are no better." Really, that's what you want to tell us about? Your ears?

Pankaj Mishra, _Age of Anger: A History of the Present_

MISHRA'S THESIS, BRIEFLY, is that militant Asian nationalism does not have much to do with Asian culture, nor Islamic terrorism much to do with Islam. Both are echoes of western movements that flared up most brilliantly and dangerously in the 19th century. Nothing new here, folks.

Isaiah Berlin and René Girard are mentioned by name only twice apiece, but their ideas seem to lie near the core of Mishra's argument. Berlin analyzed the birth of nationalism as a reaction to the (French and British) Enlightenment's founding assumption--that human nature was everywhere and in every age largely the same--and that assumption's corollary--that eventually everyone in the world would gravitate to a common set of social principles (in effect, become French or British). The post-Napoleonic pushback against this, first in Germany, then in Italy, Russia, Poland, Ireland, and the Balkans, revolutionized European culture and politics, and eventually redrew the map.

Nationalism, then, is not some atavistic, nativist acting out on the part of Arabs, Hindus, and the Cbinese, but essentially mimetic (here Girard comes in), the performing of a pattern of desire and behavior learned from the west. For instance, Mishra tracks down some byways of influence leading from Giuseppe Mazzini, key thinker of Italian nationalism, to influential figures in Zionist and Hindu nationalist circles.

Mishra similarly finds analogues for the young men of ISIS and al-Qaeda in the desperate, intense types we meet in the pages of Dostoevsky and Conrad, fictional analogues of the children of Bakunin who created a wave of head-of-state assassinations in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries (including our own McKinley).

A worthwhile book--Mishra is one of my favorite contemporary journalists. I kept thinking, tough, that the thesis might have been a better fit for an in-depth article in NYRB or Harper's rather than a book. Chapter 5 on the genesis of nationalism, for instance, 115 pages long (about a third of the book), goes into, much, much more detail than Mishra's argument requires.

I often had the feeling that Mishra would actually rather be writing about 19th century Europe than about Narendra Modi. But could one at this date convince Farrar Straus Giroux to publish a book on 19th century European intellectual history, by an Indian writer at that, even one as gracefully written as this one? Probably not. So Modi it is--even if Rousseau, Herzen, and Nietzsche end up getting a lot more attention.


Thursday, July 18, 2019

Thomas Campbell, _Gertrude of Wyoming: or, The Pennsylvania Cottage_

HAZLITT DEVOTED HALF of a chapter in The Spirit of the Age to the poet Thomas Campbell, whom I had never even heard of, much less read, and praised him so highly ("beauty linked to beauty, like kindred flame to flame [...], the voluptuous fancy that raises and adorns the fairy fabric of thought") that I decided I had to investigate.

Campbell is mainly famous for two long poems, The Pleasures of Hope (mainly abstract-philosophical) and Gertrude of Wyoming (narrative). Hazlitt seemed more taken with the latter ("The Pleasures oF Hope alone would not have called forth these remarks from us; but there are passages in the Gertrude of Wyoming of so rare and ripe a beauty, that they challenge, as they exceed all praise'), so that's the one I chose to read. Besides, how can you say no to a poem titled "Gertrude of Wyoming"?

Published in 1809 (Campbell was 32), Gertrude is a narrative poem in three parts, with a total of 92 Spenserian stanzas. It is set in the American colonies--not in the Rockies, though, but in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania.  In Part I, Gertrude's widowed father adopts a boy who was orphaned by the French and Indian wars; Gertrude is nine at the time. The boy grows up and leave, but returns about fifteen years later, in Part II, and marries Gertrude. Part Iii is set a little later yet, at the time of the Revolution, and...well, it gets tragic here. You can get an idea from the Wikipedia page on the Battle of Wyoming (also known as the "Wyoming Massacre.")

Campbell had never been to North America so far as I can tell, but his father has business dealings in Virginia (which collapsed, with great financial loss, at the time of the Revolution) and two of his brothers emigrated here. It is obvious from Campbell's notes to the poem that he had read everything he could find on the native peoples of the region. The poem walks that James Fenimore Cooper line--the native peoples the English settlers encounter are at times nature's nobility, profound and eloquent, at other times brutal and bloody. This is all seventeen years before JFC published Last of the Mohicans, though--seems like it could well have been an influence.

I did not end up sharing Hazlitt's enthusiasm for. the poem, but I enjoyed reading something he enjoyed so much. And the next time I teach Faerie Queene, I can announce, "This stanza was later used for many other narrative poems--Gertrude of Wyoming, for instance."

The other half of the chapter in which Hazlitt takes up Campbell is given to George Crabbe--not famous, but a lot more famous than Campbell--and I was struck that the lengthy passage Hazlitt quotes to illustrate Crabbe's strengths is about Peter Grimes, the fisherman whose life as recounted by Crabbe became the basis for Benjamin Britten's opera.

William Hazlitt, _The Spirit of the Age_

I SPOTTED THIS on a fellow grad student's shelves in the early 1980s--it was one of those lovely, compact Oxford World Classics, bound in dark blue--and thought, "I ought to read that." This faint resolution somehow persisted over the decades, even though I never had any particular need or occasion to honor it, and even though I actually started it at the beginnings of four or five different summers, always sputtering out a fw chapters in.

Well, this was the summer I finally read it. I hit on the tactic of reading a chapter a night, usually with a baseball game burbling quietly on the television, and it worked--I have now read The Spirit of the Age. And it is good,

Written mostly in 1824, the book collects eharacter sketches of twenty-four illustrious figures of the day, mostly men of letters--poets, philosophers, one novelist (Scott)--but also a few politicians, a couple of editors, and one fashionable divine whom Hazlitt unforgettably dismantles. No actors--surprising in the light of Hazlitt's admiration for Edmund Kean.

Hazlitt knew a few of these men well and seems to have been at last acquainted with most of them, but there is very little personal reminiscence in the essays; Hazlitt focuses on their work, their reputation, to an extent their temperament, and their contribution to the climate of the time. Even without Hazlitt dwelling on his own interactions with these people, though, the book seems steeped in his personality: his politics (reformist, anti-aristocratic), his taste (Romantic), his sensibility (a lover of language, with tendencies to hyperbole).

One would not expect Hazlitt to include many women. but it is surprising that there are not any at all. William Godwin, but no Mary Wollstonecraft? Walter Scott, but no Maria Edgeworth?

I kept thinking what a delight it would be to have a similar contemporary book from someone like the late Christopher Hitchens--I don't know who but Hitchens or the late Gore Vidal would be equal to writing a book of the same range, including (let's say) Nancy Pelosi, Jorie Graham, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Dawkins, Franklin Graham, and Toni Morrison. But what a treat that would have been.




Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Agamben, _The Kingdom and the Glory_ (3)

AGAMBEN TACKS ON a brace of appendices. One aims to identify when Western political theory made its regrettable alliance with theology, "an error with some of the most far-reaching consequences in the history of Western political thought." Agamben pins this on Rousseau, more precisely The Social Contract, with its idea of the general will.

The other asks when "economy" began to take on more of its contemporary meaning, pulling away from the theological one. Agamben points to the Physiocrats and the Encyclopédie, but thinks the theological shadow stayed over the term for a while even so.

Here I am slack-jawed. Figuring out either point would have been a career intellectual pinnacle for most of us. For Agamben, these are appendices. "By the way...".

I am most amazed, though, by how Agamben brings poetry into the story. Glory, you will recall, co-habits with "inoperativity" ("rest" in the KJV), a realm beyond necessity. Now consider this, an addendum to 8.26:

    A model of this operation that consists in making all human and divine works inoperative is the poem. Because poetry is precisely that linguistic operation that renders language inoperative--or, in Spinoza's terms, the point at which language, which has deactivated its communicative and informative function, rests within itself, contemplates its power of saying and in this way opens itself to a new possible use. [...]

   What the poem accomplishes for the power of saying, politics and philosophy must accomplish for the power of acting. By rendering economic and biological operations inoperative, they demonstrate what the human body can do; they open it to a new, possible use.

Ready when you are, politics and philosophy.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Agamben, _The Kingdom and the Glory_ (2)

SO, IF WE designate as Kingdom the sovereign, transcendent authority, and designate as Power the executants (angels, stewards, ministers) of the will of that authority, what of Glory? Agamben's preface indicates the "relation between oikonomia and Glory" as the book's topic--the relation, that is,  "between power as government and effective management, and power as ceremonial and liturgical reality [...]".

It isn't surprising, then, that the rituals-and-regalia side of fascism eventually enters the picture.

As usual, though, Agamben does not spend much time on such relatively obvious points. Glory gets its most thorough treatment in the last and longest chapter, "The Archaeology of Glory." A swift tour of the Hebrew (kabhod) and Greek (doxa) terms that get translated as "glory" suggests that there is a "constitutive nexus" between oikonomia and Glory, particularly evident in the Gospel of John and II Corinthians. The hymns proclaiming God's glory involve "the hidden root of all aestheticisms, the need to cover and dignify what is in itself pure force and domination." Does the presumed imperative to praise God come down to "something that theology absolutely does not want to see, a nudity that must be covered by a garment of light at any cost"?

Yep. But that's not all there is to it. Perhaps not even the most important thing. We have to deal with anapausis, "inoperativity," or, as the King James Version has it, "rest." Heaven, we might say.

Glory is all about inoperativity. Which is not exactly rest, though, but an alluring possible impossibility.

That means that the center of the governmental apparatus, the threshold at which Kingdom and Government ceaselessly communicate and ceaselessly distinguish themselves from one another is, in reality, empty; it is only the Sabbath and katapausis--and, nevertheless, this inoperativity is so essential for the machine that it must at all costs be adopted and maintained at its center in the form of glory.

For humankind has no work to do and longs not to do it. "Inoperativity" is the imaginary beyond that knows no desire, no necessity, no imperatives...no bullet items, no spreadsheets, no blank forms to fill out...it is even the messiah's promise, the turning of life into the Sabbath, the Kingdom finally come. "Here," Agamben writes, "the bios coincides with the zoe without remainder."

We'll have to pick this up later.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Giorgio Agamben, _The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government_ (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa with Matteo Mandarini)

I WAS MOST of the way through this and enjoying it tremendously but regretting that it did not really intersect with my own official research interests--then in the penultimate chapter a slight pivot takes us right into the heart of interwar authoritarian political theory. Home sweet home.

Why is Agamben so alluring? It has something to do with one's never knowing what he is going to bring to the party next--the references here to Kafka's fiction and to Kojève's commentary on Hegel both took me by surprise and seemed perfect. And I did not even know that Hugo Ball (!) had written a book on Byzantine Christianity.

But the key, I think, is the way Agamben combines conceptual audacity, an ability to come up with ideas that seem unlikely ever to have occurred to anyone else, with old-school mastery of the archive and philological scrutiny--if Eliot's Casaubon actually were what Dorothea Brooke initially thought he was, he would be Agamben.

Agamben is here working with the idea that modern political thought descended less from ancient and medieval political thought than from early and medieval Christian theology. Not an utterly new idea, but I associate it with writers who are conservative, not to say reactionary--Carl Schmitt, Erik Peterson. (Agamben often mentions these two and Ernst Kantorowicz, familiar to me only because his King's Two Bodies is cited in almost very commentary on Act IV, scene ii of Hamlet.) Agamben seems to be working a different side of the street than Schmitt and Peterson, though.

One of the book's principal tasks of the book is the unpacking of oikonomos, the Greek word from which we get the English word "economy," which originally meant something like "household management" or "administration." It occurs in the New Testament a few times, where it was translated into Latin as dispositio. The King James version went went with "steward," as in 1st Corinthians 4:1, "Let a man so account of us, as of ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God."

So--what does it mean to be a steward of the mysteries of God?

Agamben leads us through the thorny thickets of Trinitarian doctrine, especially the efforts to undermine the Gnostics' claims that the real God would not have dabbled in anything so nasty as gross matter. The question of how the stainless radiance of Heaven is somehow intimately involved with the mess of incarnation leads us into the even thornier thicket of theodicy (e.g., Boethius), but also raises a fundamental question of power, the relationship of authority to execution, the execution necessarily being handled by a network of people in-the-name-of-the-authority rather than immediately by the authority proper. So the distinction between being and praxis, between Kingdom and Government, between authority and the exercise of that authority, even between the Crown and whatever all-too-fallible little scamp who happens to be wearing it at the moment.

I can tell I will need multiple entries for this book.

By the way, Stanford University Press, no index?!? WTF?

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sally Rooney, _Conversations with Friends_

I WAS IMPRESSED by a chapter of Rooney's Normal People that appeared in Granta, so I bought this--Normal People was not yet out then (it is now)--but it took me a while to get to it because the cover...is a little...Chick Lit, I guess: pastel colors, trendy font, a kind of imitation-Alex-Katz illustration. Turns out, though, the cover is a (detail of) a real Alex Katz, and the novel is a real novel, not just vacation reading.

Our setup: narrator Frances and her ex-lover-but-still-friend Bobbi are Trinity College students who perform slam poetry (written mostly by Frances) around Dublin. They get the attention of early-30s journalist Melissa, who is married to Nick, an actor whose career is sputtering a bit after a quick start. Melissa and Bobbi seem to be getting flirty, edging towards a liaison, but surprise! It is brilliant but uncharismatic Frances and handsome but insecure Nick who launch themselves into an affair.

The plot is mainly the discovery of Nick's and Frances's affair by Bobbi, then by Melissa, and the course of true love ne'er running smooth.... Plenty to keep you turning pages if you are reading this on a vacation.

What intrigued me more, though, was Rooney's decision to narrate the whole novel in Frances's first-person voice, because Frances is (a) not very perceptive about her own feelings and (b) not very forthcoming about them. For example, from p. 207:

   I opened my eyes then. He [Nick] was frowning.
   Wait, are you okay? he said. Why are you crying?
   I'm not crying.
   Incidentally it turned out that I was crying. It was just something my eyes were doing while we were talking, He touched the side of my face where it was wet.
   I'm not crying, I said.

Rooney does a telling job here of conveying how people (even [especially?] brilliant people) can be utterly without a clue as to their own feelings, removed from their own emotional lives and the messiness of their own bodies--that "incidentally" is a perfect touch.

Beyond that, though, Frances seems to fly in the face of female bildungsroman tradition, in that from Jane Eyre on, its heroines have been nuanced observers of their own feelings and generous in sharing them with the reader. Relying on a narrator so unwilling to narrate anything revealing is a really risky choice on Rooney's part, but it pays off--as we readers gradually become invested in Frances, despite her own best efforts (as it were) to keep us at arm's length, we are all the more powerfully invested because she has done so little to encourage us.

In  the early going, it seems all too clear why Melissa is fascinated by Bobbi, but scarcely bothers with Frances. But Nick is our precursor. As we get some genealogy of Frances's personality (a father suffering from alcoholism and depression), witness a health crisis (a pregnancy scare that turns out to actually be early endometriosis), and listen in on some cards-on-the-table confrontations (especially one with Bobbi over Frances's tendency to withhold), we begin to really, truly hope Frances will prevail, and--thanks to Rooney's pulling a relatively plausible happy ending out of her hat--perhaps she does.


Monday, July 8, 2019

Tyehimba Jess, _Olio_

A LITERARY CONSTELLATION is forming around the founding period of professional African-American entertainers--one of the stories in John Keen's Counternarratives is about Bob Cole (creator of A Trip to Coontown), and then there is Amaud Jamaul Johnson's Darktown Follies, and then there is this--a big book both in its dimensions (235 8" x 10" pages, some of which fold out to be even larger) and in its ambitions.

Jess creates the voices of a panorama of professional African-American performers in the generation or two after emancipation. We hear from the sacred side (the Fisk Jubilee Singers) as well as the secular, from the relatively forgotten (conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy) as well as the famous (Bert Williams), from high culture (Sissieretta Jones) to broadest of the broad (Ernest Hogan). Running throughout, like a spine, are interviews conducted by one Julius Trotter with people who knew the impossible-to-categorize Scott Joplin.

(Trotter is an actual historical figure and really did conduct such interviews, but I would guess the interviews included here are largely the work of Jess, perhaps based on the actual ones.)

Keen, Johnson, and Jess may all have been drawn to the topic because performance plays so looming a role in all African-American lives, in minute-by-minute, second-by-second choices of what kind of blackness to enact in emerging circumstances. I mean--we all have to perform, really, every day, but as an older middle class white man, while I do have to "perform" when pulled over by a traffic cop, my life will likely not be at stake in how convincing my performance is.

Jess also stages the dialectics within African-American performance. If the paying audience is going to be largely white, as it seems to be for most of these artists, do you give the people what they want, exploiting their prejudices, and thereby perhaps making a lot of money, or challenge those preconceptions, possibly changing minds but probably also making less money?

What I will remember longest about the book, I expect, is Jess's formal ingenuity in staging those dialectics. The book is full of criss-crossing sonnets that read one way if you go down the left margin, another way if you go down the right margin, and yet another way if you read all the way across left-to-right and then down, in classic fashion. The sonnets about the McKoy sisters up the ante--I'm not sure I can even count the possible ways they could be read. And then there are the pages one could (though I did not) detach at a perforation and re-configure os Möbius strips....

Monday, July 1, 2019

Mohsin Hamid, _The Reluctant Fundamentalist_

CHANGEZ, THE NARRATOR of Hamid's second novel (2007) has a bit of the Ancient Mariner in him, in that he plops himself down in from of a stranger in a Lahore restaurant and, without invitation, tells the story of his life. What is going on? Does Changez just have a need to narrate at unpredictable moments, as the Mariner does? Does the stranger (male, American, prosperous) for some reason need to hear Changez's story, as perhaps the Wedding Guest does? Although the American stranger never speaks in the novel, he occasionally seems as perturbed as the Wedding Guest ("I fear thee, ancient mariner!").

Changez, we learn, is a Pakistani who won a scholarship to Princeton. After a brilliant undergraduate career, he snagged one of the very few entry jobs in a powerful Wall Street firm, and he appears to be on the fast track to success there as well. He has a girlfriend, the brilliant beautiful (and American) Erica.

But shadows loom. Erica is still mourning the untimely death of her first boyfriend, who succumbed to cancer at a young age. Her mental health deteriorates, and she breaks off the relationship. When the planes hit the towers, Changez starts getting dirty looks on the street; he responds, to the bafflement of his colleagues, by growing a beard.

His work takes Changez to Chile, to evaluate the economic viability of a publishing house. One of the old hands there, Juan-Bautista, reveals to Changez (in a kind of John the Baptist, revealing of a vocation way) what he has become: a janissary. That is--like one of the European Christian boys recruited and raised by the Ottoman empire to serve in their powerful army, Changez is a Asian Muslim who has been recruited to do the West's (or Wall Street's) dirty work. He is well-paid, provided with comforts aplenty, but he has been turned into a weapon against his own people.

Changez quits his job and returns to Pakistan, where he...well, we don't know exactly. Does he become a jihadi? Is the American to whom he is speaking a CIA agent who has been sent to capture or kill him? Does Changez know the American is a CIA agent and is the long conversation setting up the capturing or killing of the agent?

I can't spoil things by revealing the answers to those questions because (spoiler alert, in a way) the novel never answers them; just when we think all will be revealed, bang, novel ends.

Liked the technique (not since the Marlowe of Lord Jim, I think, has a speaker held the floor for so long in what purports to be a single storytelling session), intrigued by the complex tangle of loyalties. Would have liked to have learned what Changez's actual relationship to the stranger is, but one can't have everything. Maybe I missed a clue and it's all my own fault.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Richard Greenfield, _Subterranean_

I REGISTER CONTINUITY in this one, continuity of a kind--Tracer (for me) was a consciousness engaging with a landscape at a specific historical moment, and I would characterize Subterranean the same way. But it's a different landscape, a different historical moment, and even in some ways not exactly the same consciousness, continuities notwithstanding.

The landscape feels drier, emptier, more widescreen, with different flora than in Tracer. Arroyos, deserts, coyotes, cactus...less wooded, but trees are still important. More important than ever, in fact.

While Tracer was steeped in the dread of Dubya's second term, Subterranean belongs to a more recent moment. Not necessarily our present Trumpian moment--I imagine most of the poems were at least begun a while back. Instead, we have reminders of how a lot of what we loathe about the Trump era was already going on under Obama (don't get me wrong, I miss him too): tightened immigration ("The Fence"), heightened surveillance ("This Underglass Structure"), the envenomed, suffocating embrace of capital ("Occupy the Specter").

And the consciousness? Well, it's recognizably the same at several points. The sections that share the title "[Transcription]," scattered through the book, are rawer, less processed than the titled poems and often recall A Carnage in the Lovetrees, especially in their sometimes anguished invocations of the "deadfather." Recognizable, too, is the poet's skepticism about poetry:

          I should be 
primed I should mark
a melody here
                   yet I deny
 pleasure is here 
                    I'm in 
the mood for stark notation
   ("They Will Bluff Us to Influence Us")

Recognizable, too, is that the consciousness encountering a landscape in history knows it is a consciousness encountering a landscape in history:

   This is a strict inventory of the moment of place in this 
moment so as to return later, in mind, to this edge effect--this 
   overlap of the human apprehended as itself and the others it 
apprehended as their selves--incursions in which we will not reach 
   any forms of uncorrupted, deified natures, self-exiled in the 
grandness of ego. The entirety of the anthropocene--the blip of it--
the mean cottonwood copse of us for now. 
("Sun Ray")

But then there are the trees. Something feels different here. They appear frequently, but I would specifically cite those in "Pando," "The Fence," and "Subterranean." That the last provides the book with its title seems worth noticing. With trees, the poems emphasize, there is much more going on underground than you would ever suspect--were you truly to grasp what is going on underground, indeed, it would utterly overthrow most of what you think is going on aboveground. That is true of trees, of landscapes, of moments in history, of consciousness.

In a book full of killer final lines--"I owned that pish bucket, and the draught from it was drinkable"; "I had no tactic"; "I stood in line for a vaccine"--I would give the palm to the close of the final poem, the second of two titled "Edge Effect":

 no new ground was possible until now



Monday, June 24, 2019

Mohsin Hamid, _Exit West_

COINCIDENTALLY, THIS NOVEL has something in common with Anna Burns's Milkman, which  I just wrote about--both are set in cities where there is increasingly violent conflict, but neither names the city nor identifies a date.  Burns's novel seems fairly clearly to be set in Belfast in the late 1970s, but Hamid's is harder to pin down--Damascus, Aleppo, Homs? Beirut? The year: probably a quite recent one.

Nadia and Saeed meet in the increasingly dangerous city, fall in love, and start living together with Saeed's religious-but-not-that-strict parents (Nadia is estranged from her much stricter family--she wears traditional Muslim female clothes but also rides a motorbike). They decide they must leave the city. And here things get a little fantastical.

The world of the novel is full of "black doors" through which one can step instantaneously from one place to a very distant and very different place. The black doors are portkeys, we might say; moving up the literary ladder, they are like the wormholes in Richard Powers's Plowing the Dark; drawing on Hamid's earlier fiction, they are like the hypothetical technology of the hypothetical company Changez evaluates for his job interview in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Or they are just shorthand for airports--nearly identical the world over, yet each located in its own very particular and unique city.

Exit West is about migration. By means of the black doors, Nadia and Saeed get to Mykonos, then London, then Marin County, experiencing responses that range from hostility to indifference to acceptance to love. Their relationship changes; they change as individuals. They both convince, and their story does not go precisely where one might be expecting it to go.

Nestled among the episodes of their story are vignettes of other characters (to switch it up, these characters are unnamed, but their cities are identified), all tending to show what a powerful turn on the handle of chance migration is--no one, migrant or native, knows how the elements will recombine, and no one is going to be unchanged.

A bit like Colson Whitehead in The Underground Railroad, Hamid sprinkles quite a handful of fantasy into a topic that seems to call for the soberest, most straightfaced sort of naturalism, and not only gets away with it, but actually gives the narrative a different sort of moral power.


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Thomas Frank, _Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society_

FRANK IS ONE of my go-to writers on American politics. I've read all but two of his books, I think. I like his midwestern perspective--I don't think he lives here these days, but he grew up in the Kansas City area and launched his journalism career in Madison as founder of The Baffler. I like his historical depth. I admire his prose. And, yes, it matters to me that he's leftist, and a bit old school, but I especially like that he always has something to say that no one else is saying.

This is not a "book" book, but a collection-of-pieces book, the pieces being collected mainly from Harper's and The Guardian. But I'm pleased to see he still gives his best stuff to The Baffler, where "Academy Fight Song" and "Dead End on Shakin' Street" first appeared. The former is a takedown on the cant surrounding higher ed in the USA, the latter a takedown on the cant about creating "vibrant" urban centers.

(How great is it that Frank got the first title from Mission of Burma and the second title from the MC5? This is another reason I love his stuff.)

Among other sacred cows punched are bipartisanship, presidential libraries, and Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, but the core of the book is about blocking the re-election of Trump, and Frank's urges essentially what he urged in Listen, Liberal!: stop thinking minorities + women + educated professional males will add up to the White House. Try to be honest, direct, and non-condescending to the people in the middle of the country. Don't kiss up to Wall Street. Don't apologize for talking about how government can make life livable for many. (See LLL for Nov. 23, 2016.)

Anna Burns, _Milkman_

THIS MAY SOUND odd, but Milkman put me in mind of Thomas Bernhard--or, maybe closer to home for the Irish Burns, the Beckett of Molloy--in that the narrative voice does the same dance of revealing and concealing, garrulousness and reticence. The voice has its particular tics, obsessively circles facts and feelings it does not quite wish to name, wants mainly to stay out of trouble but sometimes finds itself rising on wings of indignation or of anger or of love.

The voice here is younger than that of Bernhard's or Beckett's speakers, funnier, easier to like, and female, but as with those writers, it's the voice that hooks you, even before you have grasped the situation.

The situation is interesting, though. We are in Belfast in the late 1970s, and the narrator, a young woman of maybe eighteen, Catholic and living at home, becomes the object of the attentions of a powerful IRA figure, older and married. Most of the novel is about his stalking her and the ripples his attention sends through the narrator's family, friends, and neighborhood.

However--and here is a brilliant bit--the words "Belfast," "IRA," and "Catholic" never appear. For that matter, proper nouns as a class are resolutely banned, even names. The narrator is simply "middle sister" (of a family that includes the "wee sisters," "second brother," "first brother-in-law," and so on). The young man she is in an intermittently serious relationship with is simply "maybe-boyfriend." People in the neighborhood are "tablets girl" or "real milkman," the last-named so designated because he is actually a milkman, unlike "Milkman," the IRA chieftain stalking our narrator, so designated because of his white van. The closest we get to an actual name is minor character "Somebody McSomebody."

These identifying tags (as a reader, one adjusts to them quickly) emphasize that we are in a world where certain facts and identities have to be known and taken into account--failing to do so could literally be fatal--and yet cannot be named or discussed. Even when the book is funny, as it is often is, this minefield of taboos and unspeakable realities conjures up omnipresent dread (another link to Bernhard and Beckett).

The narrative voice's avoidance of proper nouns (the IRA are "the renouncers," England is the nation "over the water") also evokes the narrator's wish to be apart, elsewhere, even while she has to be where she is, a wish reflected behaviorally by her habit of reading 19th century novels while walking about the streets--a way of disappearing that only makes her more noticeable, unfortunately, and noticed she is, by the mysterious but powerful man in the white van.

Milkman is a tour de force of technique, but also makes the useful point that when societies are in violent conflict with themselves, that does not simply create some kind of backdrop against which ordinary life occurs--no, it bleeds (again, sometimes literally) into ordinary life, altering every family relationship, every friendship, making even such apparently universal and timeless commonplaces as that sunsets are beautiful, or that one ought to marry the person one loves, into war zones.


Monday, June 17, 2019

John Keene, _Counternarratives: Stories and Novellas_

INTERESTING COINCIDENCE THAT in 2015-16 we got a cluster of ambitious, innovative fictions by African-American writers involving the history and nature of slavery and its long-term consequences: Paul Beatty's The Sellout, Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, and this. Keene did not get a prestigious prize (or, I imagine, the sales that attend such prizes), but Counternarratives is every bit as good as the other two.

Counternarratives is a short story collection (a couple of the stories are lengthy, as the subtitle indicates), and is the best example I have come across lately that Guy Davenport did not write in vain. (If you do not know Davenport's work, you should look at Brian Blanchfield's excellent appreciation in the Oxford Americanhttps://www.oxfordamerican.org/item/1144-coming-up-with-guy-davenport.)

Keene's fictions, like Davenport's, plumb history deeply, fetching up not just famous names and celebrated conflicts but something off the past's texture, its sense of the world, its unexplored corners. The stories range in time back to the 17th century, comprehend Brazil and the Caribbean as well as North America, and imagine figures who are teal but not frequently remembered: Bob Cole, composer of A Trip to Coontown (the first musical created and owned entirely by African-American artists); Anna Olga Albertine Brown, the circus performer painted by Edgar Degas in Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. The narrator of "Rivers" is fictional rather than real, and he is certainly famous, but has anyone before Keene given Jim of Huckleberry Finn his own voice?

Keene, like Davenport, has a poet's resources when writing prose. Beatty and Whitehead are no slouches, certainly, but this is how "Rivers" ends, when Jim, now enlisted in the Union Army, again sees Huck, now a Confederate infantryman:

...and I steadied the barrel, my finger on the trigger, which is when our gazes finally met, I am going to tell the reporter, and then we can discuss the whole story of that trip down the river with that boy, his gun aimed at me now, other faces behind his now, all of them assuming the contours, the lean, determined hardness of his face, there were a hundred of that face, those faces, burnt, determined, hard and thinking only of their own disappearing universe, not ours, which was when the cry broke across the rippling grass, and the gun, the guns, went off.

The most staggering of the stories is the last, "Lions," set in post-colonial Africa, a dialogue between a powerful man and his prisoner. With no exposition save what one can glean from the dialogue, we learn they served together under the same leader in the national liberation struggle, then together overthrew that leader in a coup when he turned dictatorial. Then, in what may have been a kind of Stalin-v.-Trotsky struggle, the one referred to as Lion overthrew the one called Prophet; Lion, now in sole command, is paying a last visit to the imprisoned visit Prophet before Prophet's execution.

There is a Girardian momentum in the story--once the closest of comrades (many of the stories have a cross-current of same-sex sexuality) because they wanted the same things--liberation, justice--they became rivals likewise in wanting the same thing--power.

And then there's the story  in which George Santayana manages not to "see" W. E. B. DuBois as their paths intersect while crossing Harvard Yard.

Counternarratives is still in print. If you have any appetite for literary fiction, snap it up while you can.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

David Jaher, _The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World_

I HAD NEVER heard of this particular episode in popular cultural history, but apparently it was closely followed and passionately debated back in the 1920s.

Spiritualism (that is, the practice in which people gathered in small groups to (apparently) communicate with the dead through people called "mediums"), which had waxed and waned throughout the second half of the 19th century, enjoyed a boom in the 1920s thanks to the many people hoping to contact the hundreds of thousands of young men who had died in World War I. Arthur Conan Doyle, whom as the creator of Sherlock Holmes one would expect to be somewhat hard-headed about such claims, was actually spiritualism's most enthusiastic booster after he communicated (he thought) via a medium with his dead son; he spoke to huge crowds on both sides of the Atlantic about this new science.

So, Scientific American, then as now the nation's most respected general-interest magazine about the sciences, offered a $5000 dollar prize to anyone who could produce evidence of contact with the dead that convinced their panel of five experts. On the panel was Harry Houdini--who, it turns out, was not only the greatest magician of his time but also an established debunker of spiritualism's supposed proofs of contact with the dead. As a master magician, Houdini had an encyclopedic knowledge of how apparently impossible effects could be faked.

The first few applicants were quickly disposed of. Enter the "Witch of Lime Street," Margery Stinson Crandon. Margery not only produced genuinely amazing feats as the supposed medium for her dead brother Walter, but was not a huckster (she charged no fees), enjoyed social prominence (her husband was a wealthy Boston surgeon), and was young and attractive to boot, with a sexual charisma of no mean order.

Jaher's book tracks in extraordinary detail Margery's multiple encounters with the Scientific American panel and with Houdini in particular. He draws not only journalistic accounts, which seem to have been plentiful with the whole country following the contest, but also on Houdini's own papers and those of many of the first-hand participants. Houdini ends up as the hero, and deservedly so--Margery does not get the $5000--but Margery nonetheless makes for an unforgettable character, Jaher evoking her with a skill that would do credit to a novelist.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

William Shakespeare, _Two Gentlemen of Verona_

EVERY SUMMER I make vague plans to read the Shakespearean or partly-Shakespearean plays I have never read--King John, King Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen, and this one--and every summer I fail to do so. This year, though, our local Shakespeare company is doing Two Gentlemen, so I have knocked that one, at least, off the list.

It did not seem all that remarkable upon reading it--it dates from early in his career and seems like apprentice work in spots. It does have a famous song--"Who is Silvia, what is she / that all our swains commend her?"--and some devices that he drew heavily on later (a young woman cross-dressing in order to accomplish her ends). The production was brisk and fun, though, a good night out.

Key to the plot is a love rivalry between two young men, Valentine and Proteus, best friends since childhood and both in love with Silvia, a circumstance made more painful by Proteus' having thrown over his former beloved, Julia (the cross-dressing one), once he saw Silvia.

Two men pursuing the same woman is so familiar a plot engine that it surprised me to realize that Shakespeare did not use it much after Two Gentlemen. Demetrius and Lysander are (for a while) both in love with Hermia, and Troilus and Diomedes are both hot for Cressida, but other examples do not occur to me. Shakespeare actually does a lot more with male characters who think that another man is pursuing their erotic object (Othello, Leontes in Winter's Tale, Claudio in Much Ado), but turn out to be woefully mistaken. (There's a lot of love rivalry in the sonnets, but that's another matter.)

René Girard has a great chapter on this play in A Theater of Envy (which I am in the middle of), touching on this very situation.

If you know anything about Girard, you likely know about his theory of mimetic desire--that the main way we discern what we desire is not by consulting our own intuitions, but by seeing what is desired by other people, especially those we respect or admire. We want to want what they want.

Mimetic desire readily serves as basis for friendship. Two people who both like to bowl, say, or to fix cars, or have the same favorite team or favorite band, have a sturdy, enduring platform for enacting their friendship. Indeed, if I am your friend, I may begin to like Scooby Doo, or Kurt Vonnegut, or the Pixies just because you do, and you may by the same token start wearing Vans because I do.

There is an important no-go zone, however. If I follow your example in liking your girlfriend or wife, we are on course for tragedy.

As Girard puts it:

We can always trace all symptoms back to the traumatic experience of the mimetic double bind, the simultaneous discovery by Valentine and Proteus that, in addition two the usual imperative of friendship--imitate me--another imperative has mysteriously appeared: do not imitate me. All "pathological symptoms" are reactions to the friends' inability to free themselves from the double bind or even to perceive it clearly.

Interesting, no? Furthermore, Girard sees Two Gentlemen as inaugurating mimetic desire as the core idea in Shakespeare's work. If I finish the Girard this summer, we will be looking further at this. I may even get around to King John.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Brenda Shaughnessy, _The Octopus Museum_

SURPRISINGLY REMINISCENT OF a certain vein of literary fiction imagining apocalyptical upheaval in a contemporary suburban setting--Donald Antrim's Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World and Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet came to mind, since Shaughnessy represents things coming apart and the center not holding with a sly satirical humor.

Take, for example, "The Home Team," where a parent is taking comfort in the skill of local girl Jane at "winterball':

Our hearts were in Jane's feet, her hands. All the bills we couldn't pay, the wishing for electricity and lit-up screens of pleasure, the food gone rotten because no one could bring themselves to eat it--Jane gave us so many more chances to do it right this time.

James Wright's "Autumn Begins to Martins Ferry, Ohio" meets Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but this time it's the mom who is trying hard to keep hold of some notion of who we are and what we care about...even if what we care about may be only the home team's staying above .500.

The book's larger conceit is that human beings have wrought their own extinction, but octopuses (Shaughnessy uses the plural "octopodes," which I like, but is it kosher?) have survived, and have assembled artifacts of the earth's formerly dominant species, of which exhibit the book's poems form a part. Witty, but Shaughnessy being Shaughnessy, she is never simply witty--she's also fiercely angry, subtly knowing, and tender, this last especially towards the end of the book when a few names familiar from earlier volumes start cropping up: Craig and Cal, now joined by Simone.

So...witty, fierce, knowing, tender...have I mentioned the sheer virtuosity? A lot of the book is prose poems, but as usual Shaughnessy handles a variety of forms deftly.

Let's close with this:

My children seem to subsist on music and frosting.
Where there's frosting, there's cake.

Where there's music, someone chose to make a song
over all other things on this earth.




Saturday, June 8, 2019

Natalie Scenters-Zapico, _The Verging Cities_

I WAS TIPPED to this about a year ago by Matthias Svalina, and just recently Scenters-Zapico's new book got noticed in the New Yorker blog. Further evidence, were any required, that Matthias is one great source of poetry tips.

The cities of the title are Scenters-Zapico's hometown(s), El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. The cities "Con/verge," as one section title puts it, in that they are sibling cities, their identity in many ways shared; but they also "Di/verge," as another section title has it, in that a crucial border separates them, landing them in different legal and political domains, with entailed potential for fear, suspicion, hostility, persecution, and even violence.

Juarez's problems with criminal violence, especially against women, are well-known, as is the violence the U.S. government and some of its citizens are willing to inflict on Mexicans crossing the border, and Scenters-Zapico does not spare us repeated glimpses of it, fresh, vivid, and stinging. At the same time, she can be satirical about people who appropriate the violence of her hometowns in order to lend their art a bit of edginess (see "Placements").

The frequent violence of the book serves also to raise the power of its love poems, however. The beloved in the book, Ángel, apparently comes from the city that is the twin of the city the speaker comes from, and love's famous paradox, the twoness that is a oneness, is multiply reflected in the geographical and geopolitical situations of the lovers.

The braiding of the love poetry with the poetry-of-witness, often in the very same poem, is both startling and moving. The settings of love stories is often what we know least about them, and care about the least, but here the setting is crucial.

This is all good--but what matters most is that Scenters-Zapico's poetry stays original and striking line after line: "You forgot to weed your eyes, so brush / has grown wild in your stare."

Friday, June 7, 2019

Lindy West, _Shrill_

SOMEWHAT UNUSUAL CIRCUMSTANCES led to my picking this one up. I was listening to one of those NPR shows with essay-like spoken word contributions--This American Life or Moth or Radiolab--and the essayist (monologuist?), a woman, was describing her success, some years previously, in losing quite a bit of weight. She very shortly after experienced the benefits that are expected to accompany impressive weight losses: better health, more interest from opposite sex, more professional opportunities, and so on. Then, some years later, she read Shrill, and the effect, surprisingly, was  to make her feel almost bad about losing the weight--about caving to social expectations, accepting stereotyped judgements about the fat, not sticking up for herself as West had.

A book that can make you think twice about the rightness of having lost lots of pounds--an accomplishment admired across all sorts of lines, by virtually everybody, and not at all easy to do--must be a heck of a book. So I decided to read it.

It is a heck of a book, actually. I had never read anything by West--her fame as a journalist has a lot to do with social media fora that I am too elderly to frequent--but she is a very effective writer, outrageously funny, but also passionate, intelligent, and original.

She gives herself credit, near the end of the book, for having moved the needle on three particular topics--fat shaming, jokes about rape, and the confronting of internet trolls--and her engagements on those fronts structure the book, lending it a nice momentum independent of the energy provided by the punchlines (which are frequent). It's a swift read, but nonetheless thought-provoking, as the monologuist who inspired me to read the book can attest.

Six years ago, I lost fifty pounds myself, and I'm still glad I did, but West has opened my eyes a bit. Or maybe kept them from rolling. On my first plane trip since reading Shrill, I went down the aisle to find my seat and found that I would be traveling beside a guy who looked to be a bit over three hundred pounds. Thinking of West's book, I did my best to suppress any sign of exasperation, smiled, and told myself everything was going to be fine. And it was.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Layli Long Soldier, _Whereas_

JUST A COINCIDENCE that I read this at roughly the same time as Tommy Orange's There There--Orange was the May selection in our book club, and Whereas was just the next book in my poetry queue--but they certainly worked together well, alike involved in matters of Native American identity and alike wielding some serious technique. It turns out both writers have degrees from the Institute for American Indian Arts, Orange an MFA and Long Soldier a BFA (she got her MFA at Bard).

Long Soldier's poems reminded me at times of Gertrude Stein (e.g., "Irony") and at other times of Jorie Graham (e.g., "Left"), but the most helpful comparison may be to Cole Swenson. Like Swenson, Long Soldier is a large-canvas poet; most of the poems are longer than a page, and the book is distinctly a book, a complex structure with interdependent parts, not simply a collection. (And Swenson, too, often gives her books one-word titles.)

The title poem occupies about half of the book's hundred pages. As the title hints, it borrows its structure and occasionally its language from legislative resolutions, the particular resolution in question here being the Resolution of Apology to Native Americans passed by the 111th Congress in 2009-10. Not even Claudia Rankine, I think,  could dismantle this particular piece of public hypocritical piety quite so thoroughly as Long Soldier does.

On first reading the book's opening lines, I thought Whitman might be in the mix, too--

Now 
make room in the mouth
for grassesgrassesgrasses

--but that particular ship capsized when I re-encountered the image in "38," the final poem of the book's first section, which retells as plainly as it can the story of Wounded Knee:

When the Dakota people were starving, as you may remember, government traders would not extend store credit to "Indians."

One trader named Andrew Myrick is famous for his refusal to provide credit to Dakota people by saying, "if they are hungry, let them eat grass."

[...]

When Myrick's body was found,

                      his mouth was stuffed with grass.

Made you suck in your breath, no? Not exactly "look for me under your boot soles."

Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West, _The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere_

THE PAPERS HEREIN were presented at a symposium sponsored by New York University, the School for Social Research, and Stony Brook University about ten years ago, in October of 2009. The question addressed, to use the formulation from R. J. Neuhaus that Craig Calhoun quotes in his afterword, is whether religion has a role in the public sphere if "public decisions must be made by arguments that are public in character." If religion draws its arguments from revelation, or tradition, or a specific kind of communal practice, do those arguments have a place at the table in our public square, so to speak?

This is a question, I think, mainly for those coming from the political left and assuming that progress aligns with modernization, and modernization in turn aligns with secularization. If one is coming from the political right, the question may not even arise. Should we do what God requires? Absolutely! Do we know what God requires? It's right there in Scripture! And so on. The conveners of the symposium seem to be looking for ways to include religion in the conversation while still holding on to assumptions about progress, justice, equality, freedom and other such goals of liberalism.

Habermas is ready to include religious perspectives on public questions, provided they can be translated into our shared discourse; Taylor is even more welcoming, and seems to think our public discourse would be impoverished by excluding religious perspectives. Butler thinks pulling in more currents from Jewish history and teaching (the prophetic tradition, perhaps, or wisdom gained as a dispersed people) would improve the discourse surrounding Palestine and the Palestinians. West just flat out prophesies.

A thought-provoking book. Seems of its moment, in a way--those early Obama days, when one could be more hopeful that religion (or spirituality, let's say) and social progress could be partners. Right at this particular 2019 moment, when "religious freedom" has become the catch-cry of those seeking to drive the LGBTQ folks back into the closet or worse and Netanyahu has been re-elected, all four seem optimistic. But it's a welcome reminder that things do not always look the way they do at the moment.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Alice Oswald, _Memorial: A Version of Homer's Iliad_

PERHAPS OSWALD'S VERSION of the Iliad from 2011 anticipates the recent wavelet of Homer from a female perspective (novels by Madeline Miller and Pat Barker, Emily Wilson's translation of the Odyssey). Not that women have a larger role in this version than in Homer's--they almost disappear. But Oswald's version does turn the Iliad into its own critique: in effect, a critique of what men get up to.

OSWALD'S Memorial is a translation, but also a kind of erasure poem, for Oswald includes only (a) the poem's famous similes and (b) the passages in which men are killed.

The poem begins, in fact, with a list of everyone who dies in the poem--eight pages of names, ending with that of Hector. You will likely recognize only a few of the names--most of them are introduced in the poem only a few lines before they are killed. (Like the unlucky anonymous crewman who beamed down to the strange planet with Kirk and Spock, their sole role in the poem is to die.) Most of the poem's most famous characters--Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Priam. Ajax, Andromache, Helen--survive to the poem's end. But Oswald's version is about the larger number who do not.

When I was an undergraduate, the professor who taught me the Iliad explained (as I have to many undergraduates since--thank you, Peter Connolly) that the similes, often several lines long, introduce the images and activities of routine civilized life--meals, weaving, herding sheep, wine, weather--and so create a startling contrast to the limb-shredding havoc going on at the walls of Troy,  conjuring an image of what the society looks like when it is not at war, letting us see this world the fighting has bloodily interrupted.

Oswald's trimming the poem to simply its similes and its deaths makes the contrast that much more startling. As a good erasure poem should, it finds the poem that was already inside the poem and makes it leap into visibility. Whether one should call this "feminist" or just "anti-war," I don't know, but the sheer senselessness of the continual slaughter, with the climax of Hector's death, overwhelms.

One of Oswald's tactics made me wonder what the poem would be like read aloud. She gives every simile twice--writes it out, then repeats it verbatim. As a reader, I found myself glancingly skimming the second set of lines, unless I really made myself slow down and read them. As an auditor, I would not be able to do this--I would have to attend every word of the related simile--and somehow I think that would make a difference, make me imagine in more detail the imagined scene of ordinary life juxtaposed with the killing.

The lists, too, would be different if you heard them, had to take in every name, one at a time--in print, they too are susceptible to being skipped. But every name is a world, and hearing the name would help us remember that.