Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Chelsey Minnis, _Poemland_

WHAT HAVE WE here? Possibly: a book-length poem, titled Poemland, in eleven untitled sections, each section consisting of 7-11 sub-sections, each with its own page, generally four to six lines long. Or: a volume titled Poemland, consisting of eleven poems, each poem with 7-11 "stanzas" with  its own page, generally four to six lines long. Or: Poemland, a collection of 99 poems arranged in eleven groups, each poem four to six lines long.

Ninety-nine by my count, anyway. Why not an even one hundred? I wonder whether I missed one.

The ninety-nine poems, or stanzas, or sub-sections are alike enough, consistent enough stylistically, to be all part of one work, so one certainly has elbow room to read Poemland as a long poem. At the same time, they are as separable as Legos, perfectly capable of being considered individually.

The poems--that is, the text on any particular page, usually 4-6 lines--are brief, colloquial, personal, stippled with ellipses...in fact, they are an awful lot like Instagram poetry, as here:

You have to love and not justify it any.

If anything can't be justified, you can't be justified...

You are just an ex-wonderboy...

You can try to do something...ex-wonderboy!

At first glance, dismissible. But--not so fast. For one thing, the cover--a UPC box on a background of  pink fake fur, courtesy of Jeff Clark--suggests tongues are firmly in cheeks. For another, one does not expect Ange Mlinko, who respectfully reviewed Minnis in the NYRB, of all places, to fall for Instagram poetry. Finally, and crucially, the poems/pages often get strange in decidedly un-Rupi-Kaur-like ways--

This is the warm vanilla satin necktie...

And a white gloved hand that reaches between the legs...

This is a seeping crystal...

You have to apply a blowtorch to a lollipop...

--and then trip lightly with dilated eyes into the downright disturbing--

This is like someone who pawns your minks...

And it is like a squandered money-gift...

This is the magic syphilis!...

There is no need for the truth...

Like scythes that cut through prom gowns...

So what have here, to repeat my initial question. "With this book I have made a very expensive joke," Minnis tells us (77), a statement that is one respect false ($14 from Wave Books) but may be true in others, e.g., that $14 is pricey for an elaborate spoof, if that's what this is. It may not be. But is there any need for the truth? The jury is out, I guess. At any rate, I think I will read Minnis's new one.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

Michael Kazin, _A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan_

THE UNITED STATES' lack of a robust, electorally competitive socialist party has inspired analysis and commentary for over a hundred years now. Kazin does not explicitly address that question, but his biography of Bryan even so provides parts of the answer.

Bryan, the Democratic nominee for President three times (1896, 1900, and 1908) and a crucial supporter when Democrat Woodrow Wilson finally did win in 1912, was in many respects exactly what a forward-looking politician of the left should have been: advocate for the working class, for women's suffrage, for a progressive income tax, for popular election of U. S. senators, bulldog ready to wrestle with corporate and financial power, compelling orator, charisma out to here.

At the same time, he was willing to tolerate segregation in the south in the interests of maintaining Democratic party unity, was not above emitting anti-Semitic dog-whistles in his attacks on financiers, and took his final public stand at the Scopes trial, defending the right to teach religious obscurantism in the public schools.

As to the last item, I'm willing to go along with Garry Wills's argument in Under God that what truly got Bryan riled was social Darwinism, but even so, Bryan only works as a progressive historical icon if you close one eye. And it was Bryan--not Eugene Debs, not Emma Goldman, not (decidedly not) Earl Browder--who sufficiently galvanized the public to have a shot at getting elected.

Populism's god-awful potential to backfire--grimly redivivus in our day--is a recurring note in Kazin's biography of Bryan, even though Kazin finds a lot to admire in the man.

I might not have read this had not our book club decided we should know more about the man who (it could plausibly be argued) had a larger impact on national politics than any other Nebraskan, but I'm glad I did. Nice and compact (306 pages of text, 60 of notes) but not superficial, briskly paced, intelligently written, it's both a memorable portrait of a key American political figure and a key to the gnarly enigma of the American left.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Ryszard Kapuscinski, _The Soccer War_

Does anyone remember the Readers' Subscription? Google does not, it seems. It was a books-by-mail service like Book of the Month Club, with a more selective, intellectual bent. The original version was founded in the 1950s--Auden was involved--and petered out in the early 1970s. It was revived in the 1980s, which is when I joined, but it did long survive the advent of Amazon.

Anyway...I picked this book up via Readers' Subscription, over twenty-five years ago (it appeared in 1991, so I presumably ordered it in 1991 or 1992), and it has simply sat on a shelf ever since. I buy books always intending to read them, but sometimes that crucial trigger that gets it off the shelf and into my hands is wanting.

The book went undisturbed even when Kapuscinski died in 2007 (writers' deaths often spur me to at long last read them).

Then, a few years after he died, there was a blizzard of controversy: debates over whether Kapuscinski's journalism contained some admixture of of "improvement," or outright invention, or just plain fiction. Had he been lucky, this development might have cemented his literary reputation (apparently, he was shortlisted for the Nobel at least once), but it seems it has instead lowered his stock considerably. It's been a while since I've encountered his name, I know. I came close to giving up on the idea that I would ever read the book--almost sold it to used book store once or twice.

So why did I finally read it? I will spare you the full details, but as part of a post-op therapy, I find myself sitting immobilized for fifteen minutes every morning. I could just read the paper, I suppose, but instead I have resorted to a designated therapy book that I read in 15-minute installments, every blessed day. For this purpose, books I have always been curious about, but have no urgent reason to read, and can read without feeling obliged to pay close attention to, are just the thing. So my Kapuscinski moment finally arrived.

And he is as amazing as everyone said. His ability to summon up a scene from an unfamiliar part of the world is like that of Conrad but without the heavy hand of the symbolism, or that of Naipaul, but without the condescension. Many of the pieces were written in Africa during the struggles over decolonization (including a quick, vivid portrait of Lumumba), but there are also several from Latin America (including the title piece, which ought to be a film). Kapuscinski always conveys intelligence, humanity, a kind of dogged, Sam Spade style hope.

That not every scene nor every quoted speech may have been exactly what went down did not, I found, much bother me.

By the way, you'd be surprised how much you can get read in fifteen quiet morning minutes a day, every day. I'm already a third of the way through Ben Fountain's Beautiful Country, Burn Again.


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Elif Batuman, _The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them_

I HAD READ a few of these essays about life as a graduate student in Slavic languages when they appeared in periodicals, so I was expecting to enjoy the book, but I enjoyed it even more than I was expecting to...in fact, I may have enjoyed even just the tiniest bit more than I enjoyed Batuman's brilliant debut novel, The Idiot (see January 6, 2018).

The Possessed almost feels like a peculiarly episodic novel, in fact, the three installments of "Summer in Samarkand" creating a spine of narrative for Batuman's excursions in and around Babel, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the 18th century figures who make cameos in "The House of Ice."

For that matter, The Possessed almost seems the sequel to its successor The Idiot, in that the adventures of Elif Batuman, graduate student at Stanford in Slavic languages and kinda-sorta innocent abroad in central Asia, seem to match magically what we would expect to be the later career of the undergraduate Selin Karadag, who took her first classes in Russian at Harvard and spent a summer as a sorta-kinda innocent abroad in eastern Europe. They even both wound up as judges in a leg contest.

I was hoping The Possessed would include "Down with Creative Writing," Batuman's dazzling and hilarious LRB review essay on Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. It does not, but the introduction's salty remarks on how Batuman wound up in a doctoral program in Russian literature rather than in an MFA program concisely address some of the same points.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Sam Sax, _Madness_

ONLY ONCE IN a while do I encounter a poet's second book and like it so much that I seek out the poet's first, and even more rarely do I actually make the time to read it, but yes, I am that big a fan of Sax's Bury It.

Madness (a National Poetry Series winner, selected by Terrance Hayes) has a lot of what made Bury It so appealing: rhythm, candor, critically-inflected (i.e., in this instance, Foucauldian) identity politics, a lyricism that the book's anger only enriches.

The poems revolve around illness, and what gets defined as illness (cf. Foucault), and cures, and what gets defined as a cure (cf. Foucault). The speaker of the poems is usually a young man up against his diagnoses, their associated cures, and the professionals in charge of administering same. A vein of humor runs through the book, but it's dark.

A design/structural feature of the book is a recurring reproduction of Appendix C of the 1952 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (which lists "Homosexuality" alongside "Acrophobia," "Pyromania," and "Tantrums") that gets methodically erased as the volume proceeds. This erasure may be a progress, but the final poem--titled, sure enough, "Erasure"--raises the fearful possibility that if you remove all the wrongs and mistakes there may not be much left.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Ben Katchor, ed., _Best American Comics 2017_ (Bill Kartalopoulos, series ed.)

BEN KATCHOR'S SELECTION stays a good instance from the mainstream. He includes quite a few self-published items, for instance. A few things might even be called outsider art rather than comics: that is, they have not been "published" at all, but exist as singular items in art galleries. These items are "comics" in form, words, pictures, panels, so they fit in well and certainly reward attention--I'm not objecting to their presence.  That presence does, though, suggest a surprising development.

Comics, in the forms with which we are most familiar, were a commercial product designed for mass consumption before they were anything else. Whether newspaper "funnies" or comic books, their very origin occurred in a context that was all about broad appeal and high sales. Like the earliest cinema, they were about being as entertaining as possible for the greatest number of people possible, not about their creators' particular vision or sensibility.

It did not take long at all for an expressive, auteur-like streak to emerge in newspaper comics--Winsor McCay, George Herriman, E. C. Segar--and comic books eventually had their Will Eisner and Carl Barks. But these artists' brilliance was continually in negotiation with the necessity of pursuing the same objectives pursued by the creators of The Gumps and Nancy and Archie. I might even argue that it was not until the emergence of R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, and the other underground-ers in the 1960s that we had comics that were mostly derived from the peculiar obsessions and fixations of their creators.

If Katchor's selection represents the best in American comics--not everyone would agree, but let's just assume for the sake of argument that it does--we are now 180 degrees away from those origins. Katchor includes nothing from the mainstream, not much from even the more prestigious kind of graphic novel. With a few exceptions, the material here is deeply personal, idiosyncratic, expressive, even alien and strange. Not only would they never appear in a newspaper, but even Fantagraphics would probably say, "Geez, I dunno...."

A surprising development, but an appealing one.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

James Baldwin, _If Beale Street Could Talk_

THE ENVIABLY-NAMED Thomas Chatterton Williams began his review of Zadie Smith's Feel Free (London Review of Books, August 30, 2018) this way: ""Several of the last century's finest non-fiction writers--Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin--longed to be novelists." He is setting up the point that Smith, indisputably a novelist, happens also to turn out excellent essays, but I was pulled up short by the implicit suggestion that Didion, Sontag, and Baldwin were not novelists, but only (apparently) aspirant novelists.

I can see what he means about Sontag, even though The Volcano Lover actually sold well, as did Didion's Play It as It Lays and Book of Common Prayer; Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain made it on to a lot of syllabuses, I believe, and Just Above my Head got a National Book Award nomination. Still, I suppose Baldwin's name simply equates to The Fire Next Time and the amazing essays for a lot of people.

I wonder whether the movie adaptation of this novel, besides selling some copies of its source, will re-direct attention to Baldwin's fiction somewhat. It may well, because this is an excellent novel. As you likely know (I haven't seen the movie yet myself), it's about a romantic couple in Harlem. By the time she learns she is pregnant, he is in jail, wrongly accused of rape. Most of the novel is about her ongoing relationship with him, memories of their early time together, and her and her family's efforts to free him.

The novel's point of view is mainly the woman's--Tish's--a risky choice, but I think Baldwin succeeded. The portraits of her family and the family of her lover, Fonny, are rich, particular,, and indelible.

The lovers' main problem--i.e., the patterns of law enforcement that Michelle Alexander has taught us to call the New Jim Crow--is so enduring a one in their community that it hardly feels that the book is set in any particular time. Historical locators are scarce; the book was published in 1974, and there is a quick reference to Les McCann's "Compared to What," which was a hit in 1970, but the action could be occurring in just about any decade after World War II, including the present one.

The writing, as is ever the case with Baldwin, is graceful and incisive at the same time. The drama feels real, especially the intense confrontation between Fonny's family and Tish's family at the book's mid-point. Tish and Fonny themselves are a bit too good to be true, à la Romeo and Juliet, but why don't we just say their love brings out the best in them and leave it at that? And the book is tight, succinct (maybe even a bit too succinct at the end, when I was hoping for a bit more denouement than we get), quick-moving. Maybe Baldwin-the-novelists's day has come.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Ryan H. Walsh, _Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968_

IF YOU HAVE not, you should read Quest for Corvo by A.J.A. Symons, even if you are not much interested in either its author (a relatively minor man of letters from interwar Britain) or his subject (a deeply eccentric late Victorian novelist, Frederick Rolfe, pen name "Baron Corvo"), because the book's method creates its own interest. Rather than research Rolfe and write an ordinary birth-to-death biography, Symons begins the book with his discovery of one of Rolfe's novels, then narrates his own deepening and widening research into who Rolfe was and what became of him. The book gradually evokes a whole moment, a peculiar English sub-culture of the 1890s. It's the Citizen Kane of biographies.

Walsh's book has a comparable approach, which is why you should not think of it, quite, as a book about the brilliant Van Morrison album from which it derives its title. Walsh writes of his introduction to it by the woman he later married, an dog his learning that the album was mostly written while Morrison was living in Boston in 1968, trying to stay clear of the organized crime elements in and around his American label, Bang Records. Walsh hears rumors that recordings exist of early versions of the album's songs, as performed around Boston and Cambridge by Van and a small group of local musicians, and he sets out to track them down.

This search branches out, though, into the whole counter-cultural underground of Boston and Cambridge circa 1965-68. Presumably, this is a mapping of the cultural context from which Morrison's album emerged, but it quickly becomes fascinating for its own sake. We encounter Timothy Leary, a ground-breaking local public television show, the Velvet Underground (who played a club called the Boston Tea Party much more often than they played any venue in New York), the Velvets' diehard young local fan Jonathan Richman, James Brown's role in preventing a riot breaking out on the night of MLK's assassination...and, especially, Mel Lyman.

Lyman was a member of Jim Kweskin's Jug Band, the missing link between the folk revival and hippiedom, and also a self-appointed guru who led a commune with cult-ish overtones. The commune put out a remarkable underground paper--Avatar--but became increasingly self-absorbed and defensive. This story winds up getting perhaps a few thousand more words in the text than Van Morrison does, but that's hardly a fault. It uncannily evokes the atmosphere of a certain part of the United States during the late sixties.

Walsh does nonetheless illuminate Astral Weeks, though. He did not interview Van Morrison--perhaps not much of a disadvantage, seeing as Van the Man says something different about the album every time he talks about it--but he did interview Janet Planet (Morrison's life-partner at that time), producer Lewis Merenstein (who picked all the session musicians), the musicians with whom Morrison developed the songs in Boston, and a few of the session men themselves. The heart of the album's mystery is not laid bare--it never will be, I imagine--but its incandescence is heightened a little by what Walsh discovers, and that is an accomplishment.

Insofar as the book is advancing the thesis that something going on in Boston around 1968 determined the shape of Astral Weeks, I would have to say the case is not entirely made. For all the intriguing connections Walsh brings out--that Lou Reed was a reader of Alice Bailey's Treatise on White Magic, for example--the threads are too loose and various to be pulled together into a fabric. That hardly matters, though. A book as smart, as passionate, as observant, as tellingly written as this one does not have to prove anything to be worth reading.