Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 29, 2020

Yan Lianke, _The Four Books_, trans. Carlos Rojas

EXTRAORDINARY NOVEL--UNIQUE, even. Officially unavailable in China, I understand. It is set at the time of Mao's Great Leap Forward, in a re-education camp for intellectuals sent out to the countryside to learn about the revolution by growing wheat and smelting steel. (One of the more peculiar aspects of the Great Leap Forward was the expectation that the population at large start smelting steel on a village-by-village basis.) 

All of the characters are designated by their former occupation rather than by name--Scholar, Author, Musician, Theologian, Technician, and so on. Their camp is directed by the Child, that is, Heaven's Child, a designation I am guessing reflects the traditional Chinese idea that whoever is sovereign at a given moment has the mandate of heaven. 

The Four Books provides a lot of vivid daily detail about life in the camp, of the sort you expect from a realist novel, but Yan departs from the straightforwardly novelistic in a couple of ways. 

First, the novel purports to be excerpts from four different texts. "Criminal Records" is a text written by the Author for the Child, recording occasions when the camp's internees (that is, its "criminals") deviate from the rules. "Old Course" is also by the Author, recording his own experiences and less-official observations of the camp. "Heaven's Child" is--I think--by the Scholar, and focuses on the camp's director. Finally, "A New Myth of Sisyphus," also by the Scholar and which Yan holds back until the novel's end, turns the story of Sisyphus into a kind of parable about being an internee in the camp, or possibly about being Chinese under the Communist dispensation.

Second, and fittingly for someone who won the Franz Kafka Prize, Yan sometimes resorts to a kind of imaginatively heightened, just-this-side-of magical-realism narration--which is a good fit, since the Great Leap Forward involved a certain amount of magical thinking, with production goals seemingly set entirely by whim, without the least regard for what was physically or naturally possible.

While a more straightforward novel about the Great Leap Forward would also be interesting, the multiple perspectives gives the reader a finer-grained idea of how the internees gradually--a bit like Josef K--come to accept and co-operate with the assumptions of the authority that has coerced them. The absurdities that begin to creep in, again like those that Josef K faces in the Court and the Castle, make  that acceptance and co-operation all the more unsettling. The final parable too seems a Kafkaesque touch, and rivals Kafka pieces like "Before the Law."

The most impressive aspect of the novel, though, is how Yan characterizes the official, the Child. One expects him to be a bully, a petty tyrant, some kind of amoral monster, any of the  familiar camp commandant stereotypes, but he's a kid, really: idealistic, hopeful, often generous, ambitious but in a boyish, big-eyed way  that almost breaks your heart. He is, of course, complicit with the system, but he is a continual surprise, with the biggest surprise of all at the end.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Edmund Berrigan, _Can It!_

I HAVE NOTICED among publishers of poetry a predilection for "project" books, collections that have some blurb-able preoccupation or recurring form. Well, that's fine. The most enjoyable thing about some collections, though, is that they have no unifying focus at all. Can It! feels like a very motley assembly, and amiably so. Then again, Berrigan's foreword notes his own fondness for books "in which seemingly disparate events unite into a wonderful, though not particularly intentional, whole." Can It! may qualify.

The book contains pieces written over a goodly span of time, and in a good many different forms: poems, of course, but also journal entries, experimental fiction, stoned-sounding interviews, a play, and "The Ball-Hallelujah Connection," which--I think--was originally a text about Andy Warhol and William Burroughs that Berrigan systematically re-wrote by substituting (for example) the word "melt" wherever the word "and" occurred, the phrase "exonerate politically and physically" whenever the word "see" occurred, and so on. 

But Can It! may have a core of sorts, after all, since the texts towards the beginnings often involve Berrigan's memories of his father, Ted, and many of the texts towards the end involve memories of the final illness and the death of his stepfather, Douglas Oliver. The text titled "Can It!" turns out to be a notecard written by Ted Berrigan, dated August 1982 (about a year before he died; Edmund would have been eight, I think). The card has what looks like a title, "Song for the Unborn Second Baby," and the simple two-word text of the title, "CAN IT!" 

I would not say Can It! is about fatherhood (or sonhood), exactly. A lot of it is a bit goofy ("The Ball-Hallelujah Connection," "Cloud Interview 2003") or opaque ("Did His Eye Melt?"). Somehow, though, the peculiar energy of absent older male authorities circulates in the book (sometimes malevolently, as in "The Blood Barn") and gives it a strange gravitas, even at its floatiest. For instance, in "Texas Road Trip," Berrigan travels to Houston to see the Rothko Chapel, only to learn it is "closed six months for renovation." The possibly crucial communication from a forebear that does not quite reach you, that does not quite crystallize into clarity.... Such moments give the book an eerie poignancy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Ted Genoways, _This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm_

SALES PROSPECTS FOR poetry being what they are (Rupi Kaur apart), it makes sense that poets like Paul Auster (back in the day) or Ben Lerner or Lucy Ives (more recently) take a swing or three at writing a novel. A whole host of poets have produced memoirs of various kinds. But here's a question for all unsalaried poets: how about journalism?

Might sound crazy--a good many poets are introverts, and journalism requires going out and talking to lots of people, for one thing; for another, poets rely on figuration and imagination, and journalists are supposed to adhere to the literal and the actual. 

But consider Ted Genoways. After two poetry collections and a variety of editorial work, he turned to journalism focusing on food production, with not only more-than-respectable sales but also some book awards.

Granted, the move makes more sense for Genoways than it may for other poets. He is a relatively traditional poet who relies on precise observation and economy of phrase. He is not given to what is often called "poetic prose," even though it is not all that poetic nor very effective as prose. His writing is not at all vague or impressionistic or over-decorated; rather, it is poetic in the best sense, taut, focused, graceful. The lyric touches do not float about freely, but instead highlight vividly precise statements:

The Miller Nitro Sprayer, a cherry-red colossus on 6-foot-tall all-terrain tires, rolled up to the edge of the freshly-planted field of corn. The twin booms of the spray-rig were spread out in either direction, like a pair of enormous dragonfly wings, unfolded and lowered by a system of hydraulics.

Genoways is likewise skillful in blending his frequent forays into contextual information--the history of irrigation in Nebraska, the development of seed corn hybrids, the Ogalalla aquifer, the rigors of farm markets and farm financing--into an up-close, intimate portrait of one farming family. The Hammonds would have made a good book all by themselves, and the context Genoways provides on contemporary family farming would have made a good book all by itself. He has managed to make an excellent book by doing both at the same time--a remarkable accomplishment.

Around here This Blessed Earth is getting compared to Agee's and Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I'm not ready to  go that far--we'll have to wait and see what posterity says--but the comparison is not outlandish, and that's saying a lot.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Anselm Berrigan, _Something for Everybody_

I CAN THINK of a good many examples of both parties in a couple being published poets--contemporary examples are many--but I have not been able to think of another example of both parties in a marriage being published poets and their offspring also being published poets. A couple of poems in this collection were co-authored by Sylvie Berrigan, who was in elementary school at the time, so the next generation is already being groomed for succession.

Reading Anselm Berrigan's book right after reading his mother's latest, I found myself wondering about apples and trees and distances. Berrigan's poetry is easily distinguished from Alice Notley's (and from his father's and his brother's), but they all seem somehow New York School, certainly within hailing distance of each other and of Koch, Schuyler, O'Hara, no one of them likely to be spotted in anthologies like Garrison Keillor's, for instance. I found myself wondering about the tradition of being at a healthy remove from tradition. 

I thought of this especially in reading the collection's final poem, written to be read at the St. Mark's Poetry Project and also about the St. Mark's Poetry Project and for that matter a reasonably good instance of the kind of work furthered by the St. Mark's Poetry Project. And since Anselm Berrigan grew up in the shadow of the St. Mark's Poetry Project, one starts to think that the anti-tradition represented by the St. Mark's Poetry Project eventually becomes its own tradition--noticeable also in Berrigan's invocations of writers like Joe Brainard and Jim Brodey, not to mention his parents.

Would the genuinely transgressive move, were one Anselm Berrigan, have been to turn into...I don't know...William Logan? Adam Kirsch? 

Then again, one Adam Kirsch is plenty. Even one William Logan may be surplus to requirements, actually.

The kind of continuity Berrigan exemplifies may even be heartening, come to think of it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

W. Somerset Maugham, _Cakes and Ale_

THE BUBBLE REPUTATION...when I was in middle school and high school, I repeatedly got the impression that Maugham was a serious and respected novelist. While I was in college, though, my teachers never mentioned him, and none of my fellow students seemed to have read him (we had all read Kerouac, Salinger, Hesse, Plath, Vonnegut, Catch-22, and they came up a lot).

When I was in graduate school in Chicago, I could find copies of The Razor's Edge, The Moon and Sixpence, and Of Human Bondage in practically any used book store I entered, but none of my fellow students dropped his name, and my teachers ignored him or even chuckled a little dismissively if he came up.

He seems to have fallen off the map as a topic of scholarship. The research library nearest me holds only two books about him published this century, both biographies. The list of scholarly articles looks similarly lean.

And that, briefly, is why I never bothered to read a single thing by W. Somerset Maugham, until this month.

I picked up Cakes and Ale because I had read that Hugh Walpole (a British novelist who was a contemporary of Maugham, very successful during his lifetime, but now even more neglected than Maugham) was so mortified by his all-too-recognizable likeness in a character in Cakes and Ale that he thought he could never show his face in public again. He recovered enough from his embarrassment to resume his social life, but some say Walpole felt himself in the shadow of Maugham's caricature for the rest of his life.

I have to admit--I was curious. What kind of caricature could be that devastating?

So I read Cakes and Ale. And enjoyed it, actually. Maugham was a pro.

Cakes and Ale is narrated by a novelist named Ashenden, who has accepted a lunch invitation from another novelist, Alroy Kear. Kear is the Walpole character, depicted as having a modest-to-negligible talent for writing, but a preternatural genius for schmoozing and networking. Kear has landed an appointment as official biographer of another novelist, the late and well-respected Edward Driffield, through his careful cultivation of Driffield's widow and second wife, who has high hopes that the biography will secure her late husband's status as a major British novelist. Kear knows that Ashenden, as a young man, was acquainted with Driffield, and is hoping to pump him for his memories of the great writer.

Well, this is interesting, yes? The novel goes on to alternate between Ashenden's memories of Driffield and the first Mrs. Driffield, Rosie, a former barmaid and someone who like a good time, and his fencing with Kear and the second Mrs. Driffield over who Driffield was and who Rosie was. Moving back and forth like this between two time-frames, between the story's past and its present, takes skill, and Maugham does it masterfully. He also does a great job of bringing out Rosie as a character--she turns out to be a much more central figure in the novel than her husband.

Maugham explores some interesting ideas about the relation of fiction to experience, and (like Henry James in "The Aspern Papers") scholarly readers' somewhat vampiric relationship to the secrets of a dead writer.

I can also see why Walpole would have been mortified.

Not sure when I will have the time to look at another novel by Maugham, but this one made a favorable impression.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Ma Jian, _Beijing Coma_, trans. Flora Drew

BEIJING COMA SHUTTLES between two time frames. In one, Dai Wei is a student caught up in the ferment that leads to the mass demonstration of May 1989 in Tiananmen Square. In the other, set seven to ten years later, he is in a coma in his mother's apartment, unable to move or speak but still able to hear everything said around him. We learn early on that Dai Wei took a bullet to the head in the final hours of the demonstration, when the People's Liberation Army moved in, and he has been in the coma ever since.

The Tiananmen Square passages, which usually run 8-10 pages, follow Dai Wei as he interacts with his friends and fellow demonstrators, rushes off to get some sleep, checks in on his hunger-striking girlfriend Tian Yi, gets appointed head of security, and so on. These sections, more dialogue than description, succeed in conveying the buzz, the chaos, the excitement of the early days of the demonstration, when triumph seemed imminent, and the gradual, then accelerating darkening when the troops are gathering, demonstrators are drifting away, and the shooting commences.

Ma Jian was an actual eyewitness at Tiananmen, though he was not present at the bitter end, and these scenes have a peculiarly realistic flavor, mainly because people are only occasionally talking about politics and goals. They wonder about when the food will arrive, or scrounge cigarettes, or quarrel with each other, or indulge in utterly ungrounded (it turns out) speculation that Deng Xioaping will ultimately have to give way. Couples form, couples break up. A community forms, with all the the mess and contingency of a community, even while the feeling grows of being at a turning point in history. It's almost like Woodstock--had Nixon sent in the National Guard on the final day to mow everyone down.

The passages set in Dai Wei's mother's apartment provide a glimpse of how China changed after Tiananmen through what he overhears. Hong Kong is handed over. Some of his old associates go to the USA, or get rich, or lose their minds. Falun Gong and other traditional practices gain popularity. Hong Kong developers arrive. Hutongs are cleared out to make way for the Olympics.

At novel's end, Dai Wei may be on the point of waking up. If he does, he will be a kind of Rip Van Winkle, emerging into a society that will have become alll but unrecognizably different--though not at all in the ways the demonstrators envisioned.

It's a long book--586 pages in the edition I read--and I would say it could probably lose about a quarter of its length without any grievous sacrifice. The Tiananmen Square scenes, in particular, sometimes seem to be repetitions without variation. Even so, if you are interested in an up-close, on-the-ground view (as opposed to a bird's-eye, big picture one) of one of the hinge moments of recent decades, Beijing Coma provides that.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Alice Notley, _For the Ride_

I DID NOT understand quite a bit of this, but I did not understand quite a bit of Blake's Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion either, and I suspect they are kindred poems, both compelling even when, maybe especially when mysterious.

For the Ride could be taken for, and may well be, an addition to the post-apocalyptic fantasy tradition, in that we have a character, One, who is sole survivor of some unexplained catastrophe. One is surrounded by a screen or ring of screens, the Glyph, which contains events other characters with which and with whom One interacts.

What the Glyph presents is shifting and unstable, so we have references to One contending with chaos--and that was a big trigger for me. I immediately (and, yes, perhaps mistakenly) associated these with Satan's journey through Chaos in Book II of Paradise Lost. This fit, I  thought--the post-apocalyptic genre, being about re-creation, is necessarily also about creation, pure and simple, every re-creation being its own creation, in a way. And Paradise Lost is about creation, of course, both God's and Satan's rivaling of it, which is exactly what Blake was picking up on in Milton and then on larger scale in Four Zoas and Jerusalem, with his own mythology of creation, fall, and renewal.

Notley's writing a lot of the book in a sixteen-syllable line also put me in mind of Blake and his good English fourteener, and the shaped poems that occur in most of the poem's eighteen "books," if I may call them that, seem analogous to Blake's illuminations, the images that accompany the poems.

(There's also the slightly antique feel Notley imparts by such elisions as "fore'er," or "suff'ring," or indicating that some past tense forms need to have their endings pronounced, as in "scarèd".)

I was even ready to see Notley's Shaker as Blake's Urizen, Notley's One as Blake's Albion, as all the poem's other characters may be his emanations ("phantom amoebic splits off one"). The Many are the One, the One is the Many...that sort of idea.

And Blake's mythology also being psychology, a theory of being--that too may be blowing through the transoms here, with a carom off of Ronald Johnson's Ark...for I have persuaded myself that the ark Notley repeatedly refers to is not Noah's (familiar though it is) but Johnson's poem, his own analysis of the sensorium of the human and  the grounds of being. Johnson of course has his own rich history with Milton (Radi Os).

What brings it all home is Notley's contemplation of language, language as author of our being--can we become authors of our own language and so authors of our own being? (Milton's Satan again, refusing to be cast as a creation.) Something important, I suspect, happens in Book XIV, "Absorbs Them," leading to the whirling linguistic dismantling of Book XV, "I Have Been Let Out of Prison."

For, as she says near the beginning of the poem:

                     Build an ark of words.
One's supposed to be inventing new language, definitely
tearing down the old of gender, tensal submission, whatall,
pomposities to enslave one...Tear it down as ones save ones--
Ark of salvation and destruction of the old at same time.
Wake up! Tear it down! and save one. One is the species, words are.

And then near the end:

   I'm tryin to change the langue
so no social struct
   Just hummin tween the chaons
Yep. Just hummin tween the chaons.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Jonathan Littell, _The Fata Morgana Books_, trans. Charlotte Mandell

I STILL HAVE not finished Les Bienveillantes, though (clears throat) I fully intend to, but I thought I could give this a try in the meantime--seven short stories (or six and a novella, perhaps) originally published a four separate volumes by a French publisher, Fata Morgana.

Most striking to me, coming to this after having read 860 pages of Les Bienveillantes, is the near-perfect absence of the kind of contextual framing historical fiction provides.  Les Bienveillantes is painstaking about names, places, dates; in these fictions, while the details of a scene are usually vibrantly precise, we have no orientating information about where we are, or what year it might be, or even very many personal names.

This difference made it all the more remarkable that the two books definitely seem to be the work of the same author (even though I read this in translation and am reading Les Bienveillantes in French). The novel's narrator, Maximilien Aue, has the same eye for the same kind of detail, the same cool equanimity even while describing shocking events, the same willingness to let a sentence unwind to its end, however long it needs, that the narrators of these fictions have.

The back cover copy mentions Kafka and Blanchot, which sounds about right, both in the suppression of precise localizing detail and in the tone of eerie calm in the face of irrational events that teeter between comic and horrific.  We might mention Lispector and Beckett as well. "Fait Accompli" could almost be the Beckett version of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants."

"An Old Story" made the strongest impression on me. The book's longest story at just under eighty pages, it makes a loop: its ending capable of being seamlessly joined to its beginning. It could, theoretically, become an infinite repetition (which may be what makes the story "old."). The events are dreamlike, swift and shifty and arbitrary, yet the narrator accepts whatever happens and steps into whatever role circumstances offer with scarcely a hesitation or demur. Episodes include an encounter with a Joseph Kony-like child army, a troupe of marauding Cossacks, a luxurious party, and a sex club; they dissolve rather than end, the narrator finding himself at the conclusion of each in a track suit, running down a corridor, until the next door opens on yet another scene in which he will play yet another role.

The story begins and ends at a swimming pool, which makes me wonder whether "An Old Story" is an elaborate homage to John Cheever's "The Swimmer."

The story's import? I know not, but I would say it is altogether safe from Oprah's blessing, and that's something these days.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

R. F. Foster, _Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923_

THIS WAS PUBLISHED five years ago, to coincide (I assume) with the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916, so it has something in common with Revolution, the mini-series based on the Rising. Rather like the television series, it takes as primary focus the personalities of and the relationships among participants in the Rising--not in a soap opera way (although Chapter 4, "Loving," has its gossipy passages), but through a deep dive into the archive of the people who hoped for, imagined, planned, and finally brought about the event.

Foster is the leading Irish historian of this period in his generation, most would say, so hardly anyone is better situated to write a book on the rising. It's not (another) day-by-day, hour-by-hour account, though, nor an assessment of its aims, failures, and  ultimate impact. Rather, it is a look at the generation and the culture that produced its principal players, both those onstage and those backstage and those in the alley behind the theater.

From that angle, Vivid Faces puts me less in mind of Revolution than it dioes of another book I am slowly grinding through, Yuri Slezkine's massive House of Government, about the people who brought about the Bolshevik revolution and then tried to create the world's first socialist state. Slezkine, like Foster, looks at what the people read, what they wrote, the clubs they organized, their love lives. And it turns out--keeping in mind all the differences there are between being Irish and being Russian--that the two revolutionary generations had some shared traits, not least a vision of a new, unprecedented world and a willingness to put their lives on the line to bring that world into being.  They share a certain ferocity, a certain idealism, a certain refusal to let the past dictate the bounds of possibility to them.

Foster notes that the comparison already occurred to Irish poet/painter/ visionary George Russell (a.k.a. AE), who published an essay on the topic, "Lessons of Revolution," way back in 1923.

The most grievous of the similarities: both revolutions evolved with startling speed into grim new societies that the revolutionaries would never have sought nor have considered desirable: In Ireland, the cautious, business-friendly, church-friendly Irish Free State of Cosgrave and de Valera; in Russia, Stalinism. All the ardor, argument, and blood sacrifice produce a victory, but the inheritors of the revolution's mantle soon find themselves reconstructing the iron box the revolutionary generation was trying to break apart.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Ronald Firbank, _Vainglory_

STRANGE TO THINK that this was published in 1915, the first full year of World War I, because it depicts characters and milieus about as removed as possible from the mud, blood, and shit of the Western Front trenches. Most of it is set among wealthy, leisured women--the wives of deans and bishops in the Church of England and other members of the upper-class--who are jockeying for position as to who will take the lead on providing a major new stained glass window for St. Dorothy's, the cathedral in Ashringham. 

The dictionary on my computer defines "vainglory" as "inordinate pride in oneself or one's achievements; excessive vanity," so Firbank's intentions may be satirical. The women are mainly interested in impressing or one-upping or undermining each other, with only the most superficial consideration for the dignity of the sacred. 

Much of the novel is dialogue. A short sample suggests the characters' typical preoccupations:

   "Such a pity not to have gone halves. You and Lady Castleyard together. A Beaumont and Fletcher--"
   "So, actually, you've come!"
   "What a wonderful wrap. My dear, what skins!"
   "In case you should feel faint at all in the night you'll find a lobster mayonnaise and some champagne in the vestry!"
   "Dear Lady Anne, how could you dream of such a thing?"
   "In the grey of dawn, when a thousand grinning fiends peer down on you, you may be very glad of a little something...."

Ashringham is a long way from Barchester, in many respects. But then Firbank is a long way from Trollope, apart from a shared interest in what a bishop's wife may get up to. Firbank seems scarcely more interested in the nation's spiritual wellbeing than any of his characters do, and much more interested in creating and sustaining a sphere of studied artificiality that has nothing to do with anything but itself. Which almost makes him sound like Mallarmé...but he's not exactly that, either. 

Lady Barrow lolled languidly in her mouse-eaten library, a volume of Mediaeval Tortures (with plates) propped up against her knee. In fancy, her husband was well pinned down and imploring for mercy at Figure 3.

So suppose we had a Venn diagram with circles representing Trollope, Mallarmé, and Wilde. That little corner where all three intersect is where Firbank hangs out.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Édouard Louis, _Histoire de la violence_

HISTOIRE MAY BE translated into English both as "history" and as "story."  The official translation, I see, went with "history," which is certainly defensible, but let's consider that the book is about a story and about whom stories belong to.

The title page notes that Histoire de la violence is a roman, a novel, but apparently it is autobiographical. Louis was on his way home from visiting friends on Christmas Eve when he fell in with a handsome, interesting stranger. He brought the stranger up to his place, and things went smoothly enough for a few hours, but when Louis emerges after a quick shower, it appears the stranger has taken and concealed Louis's phone and tablet. Louis tries as diplomatically as he can to get the stranger to return the items, but things take a bad turn. The stranger assaults Louis, rapes him, threatens to kill him, and actually does attempt to strangle him. The attacker relents, though, and Louis gets out. He goes back to his friends' apartment, goes to a clinic, eventually is persuaded to go to the police, files a complaint. Some months later, still badly shaken, he visits his hometown in the provinces to stay with his sister for a while and recover.  

All this is skillfully and memorably narrated, with little if any bitterness and recrimination. But more remarkable, I'd say, than Louis's ability to tell the story is his purposeful rearrangement of the chronology of the events. When the book opens, for example, he is on his way home from filing the complaint with the police. As he recalls his being questioned, we see that for the police, Louis's story is one more tale of what Arabs get up to, even though Louis insists, repeatedly, that his attacker was a Kabyle, not an Arab. We know more about this sort of thing than you do, they insist.

By p. 12, we skip ahead a bit in time and are at his sister Clara's place, and Louis is overhearing his sister tell her husband the story of the attack. But for Clara, Louis's story is principally about what happens when you turn your back on your hometown and family and head off to the seductions of Paris.

Louis's departures from chronological order not only create a different kind of anticipation and suspense, but also highlight the ways in which Louis's story gets picked up and re-purposed by others.

The ironies keep piling up. To Reda, the attacker, Louis probably seemed a typical enough fortunate son of Paris...not at all someone who had to claw his way out of a dead-end working-class small town. Though not in the same way Reda is, Louis is an outsider in Paris, too.

The novel (or auto-fiction?) becomes Louis's way of reclaiming his story, peeling off the weedy tendrils of ownership that are growing over it like kudzu as others re-tell the story to align with their own sense of things.

Édouard Louis put me a little in mind of Lucien Chardon in Balzac's Les Illusions Perdues--another young man from the provinces who takes his literary gifts to the capital. He changes his name to Lucien de Rubempré  (Édouard Louis was once Eddy Bellegueule) and ends up dealing with both opportunities and perils he could not have imagined.

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie seems like a much nicer man than Vautrin, though.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Ben Lerner, _Angle of Yaw_

HAVING READ AND enjoyed not only all three of Lerner's novels but also his book on poetry, I was beginning to feel self-conscious and negligent about not having read any of his poetry. I saw this in the Regulator Bookshop on a visit to Durham, NC, and decided, okay, this is the time.

Angle of Yaw is a National Book Award finalist, published 2006. Lerner is drawn to longer forms here. There are four poems in the collection, and the three shortest are all seven pages long ("Begetting Stadia" at the beginning, "Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan"at the end, and Didactic Elegy" in the center).  "Angle of Yaw" is ninety pages long--ninety prose poems in two block of forty-five, on either side of "Didactic Elegy."

Angle of Yaw must be doing well; the copy I bought is from the seventh printing. The success is merited but nonetheless surprising, because Lerner's poetry is no more down to Earth than NASA's Voyager Golden Record, the sleeve of which graces its cover. "History, screams Hamsun, the junior senator from Wisconsin, will vindicate my mustache"--not exactly Mary Oliver. He often juxtaposes lines in startlingly different registers, putting me in mind of Ashbery, and he can be mandarin.

For instance, "Didactic Elegy" is for those who died on 9/11, but it is also an analysis of the situation of the elegy as genre and poetry as an art in the early 21st century. That is, it seems designed to block or frustrate our reflexive response to the idea of a poem about 9/11, or any urge we may feel to admire the author for having appropriate feelings about a terrible public event, or any wish we may have to congratulate ourselves for reading a poem describing those appropriate emotions. It's a powerful thing, in a novel way, like Juliana Spahr's "This Connection with Everything with Lungs," but it avoids all the moves we'rte accustomed to calling "powerful."

 "Twenty-One Gun Salute ofr Ronald Reagan" is satirical, I would say, but without any of the more recognizable satirical moves. Twenty-one nine-line stanzas on what looks like a very formal but shifting pattern, with many of the lines (all of them, maybe?) sounding "found," as in "Jesus likes me," or "Let's add touches of ethnic instrumentation," or "mechanically separated chicken parts."  It's a long way from Pope's imitations of Horace, as satire goes. Still, it gets at something important about the Reagan era, even while not allowing itself to do anything the easy way, much as "Didactic Elegy" ends up feeling like an elegy wthout ever sounding like one.

The three relatively shorter poems are all excellent, but the prevailing tone of the book lies in the ninety prose poems of "Angle of YAw." They go down like gingersnaps. Poised, funny, original, observant, smart as bejeezus.