Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, July 24, 2020

Cathy Park Hong, _Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning_

THIS IS MY ninety-third post of the year, seven over my previous annual high. And it’s only July. What’s going on? More time to read, no doubt, what with never going out.

Hong’s book is not the typical childhood-to-maturity memoir. It has a subtle kind of chronological progression to it, but the chapters tend to center less on an era of her life than on a topic, a focus for analysis: the situation of Koreans and Korean-Americans in the US; the standup comedy of Richard Pryor as an inspiration in Hong’s artistic practice; whiteness in our culture; Hong’s relationship to the English language; the work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and the way discussions of that work have tended to occlude the terrible way she died; a meditation on indebtedness and its supposedly obligatory attendant moral phenomenon, gratitude. 

Hong’s take on gratitude reminded me of what I once heard Jamaica Kincaid say in a commencement speech: “Bite the hand that fed you.” That is, yes, you may owe things to various people, but that does not mean they get to make your important decisions for you, so don’t let them.

If you have read any of Hong’s poetry, you would probably expect her to give a quick boot to any talk of Asians being a “model minority” (hard-working, self-denying, education-focused, family-oriented, quick to assimilate) and an even quicker boot to stereotypes of Asian women as demure and docile. You won’t be disappointed.

My favorite chapter may be the one closest to conventional memoir—“An Education,” about her time at Oberlin and her friendships there with a couple of other young Asian women artists. There’s a great screenplay in here, I suspect, a Damsels in Distress with the cuteness dialed down and the angst dialed up.

But just as remarkable is “Portrait of an Artist,” about Cha. With Dictée now emerging as a contemporary classic, Hong’s chapter on Cha deserves to become a must-read.

In her chapter on Pryor and stand-up, Hong mentions occasionally trying out a standup routine on people who came to her poetry readings, which I imagine met with as much puzzlement as (but probably less heckling than) a comedian reading poetry at a comedy club. (I kept thinking this chapter was going to mention Margaret Cho, who like Hong is ready to blow up the demure-and-docile Asian woman stereotype, but it does not.) 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Prageeta Sharma, _Grief Sequence_

MEMOIRS WRITTEN AROUND the loss of a husband has become a richly developed genre in the last decade or so--Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, Joyce Carol Oates's A Widow's Story, Gjertrud Schnackenberg's Heavenly Questions. Since women tend to live longer than men, and since more women are publishing writers now than in eras past, the genre will probably keep growing.

Grief Sequence is largely linked prose poems about the death of Sharma's husband, the composer Dale Edwin Sherrard, of a cancer that came on abruptly and took him much sooner than his doctors had been expecting. 

Given the subject matter, it seems churlish to complain, but the book did not make a very deep impression on me, I have to say. Grief is hard--perhaps impossible--to be original about, as one of humanity's oldest experiences. Even so, some writers--Didion, in my opinion--do find a way to make its peculiar estrangements vivid and clear. That never quite happens here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

William Shakespeare, _King John_

I RECENTLY READ an excellent new book of poetry titled Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition, and a microsecond of internet search yielded the information that the phrase in the title comes from King John...which I had never read. It seemed like a hint to get around to it.

King John falls between the two great history tetralogies and is relatively infrequently performed and discussed--it is not mentioned in Stephen Greenblatt's recent Tyrant, for instance, even though John would qualify on some counts. 

Like the other history plays, the gears of the plot have to do with legitimacy and succession, but in King John there is not much mystification about One True Heir--it's all about who gets the drop on whom, who gets the elbow in fastest and hardest, as the Bastard points out in the speech that begins with the line "Mad world, mad kings, mad composition!"

The Bastard (as the text typically designates him) is Philip (later Richard) Faulconbridge, illegitimate son of John's older brother, the late King Richard the Lionhearted, and the play's most interesting character. Like Richard III, Iago in Othello, and Edmund in King Lear, he is utterly candid with us, the readers/audience, about what he is up to and how self-deluded the other characters are, so his presence is always a little refreshing, ambitious and unscrupulous though he is. He's no hypocrite--not with us, at least; to the other characters, he's shameless. As the son of the late king, bastardy and all, does he have a shot? Well, stranger things have happened. 

The sentimental favorite, though, is Arthur, son of Geoffrey, the brother between Richard and John, hence the closest thing the play has to a One True Heir, but Arthur is a bit too good for this world. Don't put your money on him.

Marjorie Garber points out that the queens do a lot more politicking in King John than they get to do in the other histories. Fair point--let's not forget Margaret of Anjou, though.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Bhanu Kapil, _The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers_

REASONS TO BE cheerful: I had not heard of Bhanu Kapil until about a year ago, when a poet who often has good recommendations mentioned her to me. I bought this online. It's from a small press--Kelsey St Press--and is very sparely presented; it bears no blurbs, no descriptions, not even an author photo. As I do, I checked to see what year it was published (2001), and then noticed that my copy was the seventh printing, from 2018.

Seven printings!

Not too shabby.

And the book is astonishing. In the 1990s, Kapil undertook a project to interview as many Indian women as possible all over the world, asking them all the same twelve questions (e.g., "How will you begin?", "Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?", "Describe a morning you woke without fear"--the whole list is on page 9). This book contains her own answers to the questions, ninety-eight prose poems in all (each question gets several answers), all but one contained on a single page.

Reading the book, one accumulates a rich sense of Kapil's parents, work, and love life, but not so much by straight exposition as by a mosaic method, each poem dazzling in its discontinuities, clear and often independent images, startling juxtapositions. For a short example, here is number 46, an answer to "Describe a morning you woke without fear':
I've followed you as far as I can. To this ribbon of silver plastic, fluttering from a tree: innards of a tape you gave me: madrigals, etc. I threw it out the window last winter, at night, when the bone stars were rising in the trees.
So we have an ending--"I've followed you as far as I can"--then the precise but inexplicable image of the plastic ribbon in the tree. Tinsel? No, a heaved cassette, suggesting anger, displaced violence, but when the bone stars (bone stars) enter the scene, a serenity gathers, and we have a sense of why this was a morning without fear.

Each poem is in a kind of membrane like that, its own city-cell, but the membranes are permeable, so as one reads the book, recurring elements combine and recombine, making a world.

What a great book.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Heather June Gibbons, _Her Mouth as Souvenir_

THE TERMS OF the Agha Shahid Ali Prize probably do not include the submission's being one Ali himself would have enjoyed, but I suspect he (whom I know only through his work) would have enjoyed this one. It's a brilliant debut.

Part I includes a lot of first-person statements and seems to have a layer of personal history, both family ("My people walked over mountains and buried children on the trail / for a prophet who led them to a lake of salt") and individual ("When the acupuncturist examines / the film on my tongue, I'm afraid / she'll see I'm prone to night sweats //and sobbing at the dolphin show"). It's witty, caffeinated, headlong, fizzy with wit and invention.

Part II is about love and music. Several of the poems are titled "Sore Song," which I am guessing has to do with getting "eros" backward, and they beautifully capture that feeling of coming unglued:

Meet me at the secret airport. You'll know me
by the spinner lure in my hair and it will feel like

the first time I saw you on the cover of a magazine
lying next to an empty bottle in some other

woman's kitchen.

Gibbons may yet one day write the screenplay for the world's first surrealistic romantic comedy, which I hope she will title The Secret Airport.

Part III also has its own atmosphere, Ashberyean, I would say, juxtaposing specialized language with colloquialism, veering off suddenly at oblique angles.

Evidently metaphors arouse the sensory cortex.
Sexy. Some days, my yard becomes a metaphor
for everything I do wrong: moldy dog shit,
stray butts, a shrub's yellowed leaves.
They say if you're sad, you haven't been
smiling enough. Want to make better decisions?
Eat more cheese.

And I would like to mention that the book's final poem invokes Nebraska's own Weldon Kees, which all by itself would make me a fan--but the whole book is excellent.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Liao Yiwu, _The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up_, trans. Wen Huang

EXTRAORDINARY BOOK. IMAGINE a Chinese Studs Terkel compiling an oral history of China since the 1949 revolution, along the lines of Hard Times or The "Good" War, and you will have a rough idea. 

The straight translation of the title of the book from which most of these interviews are drawn is "Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society," and a reader soon gathers that there are many ways to end up on the bottom rung in China. We hear from a few actual criminals, such as "The Human Trafficker" and "The Safecracker." A larger number are outcasts thanks to their ties to traditional beliefs and practices that the state wishes to discourage, such as ""The Abbot," "The Falun Gong Practitioner," and the corpse walkers of the title, who carry on a tradition of accompanying a dead body to its birthplace for burial (the state prefers that the dead simply be cremated where they happen to have died). 

The largest group on the bottom rung are people who have managed to offend the state in some way, intentionally or inadvertently. We have the brilliant composer Wang Xilin, who mainly wants just to write music but offends by his occasional candor; a man who found some old gold coins buried on his property and was accused of robbing graves; the father of one of the students killed at Tiananmen square; and of course people who got targeted and suffered during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, or the Great Leap Forward, or the Cultural Revolution, etc.

Liao Yiwu, like Terkel, is an astute interviewer, skillful at inspiring trust and then getting out of the way to let people tell their stories. As far as I can tell, he and his interview subjects have been well served by their translator, for the book is a brisk and engaging read. We get an extraordinary chorus of very individualized voices, a ground-level history of one of the world's oldest and largest societies during a half-century of astonishing and often tragic transformation.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Valeria Luiselli, _Lost Children Archive_

HER THIRD NOVEL, her first written in English, and it is excellent. Three textual planes, we might say.

We have a married couple, two kids, on a Great American Car Trip from NYC to Arizona. We do not learn their names, apart from the native-inspired ones they give themselves during the trip: Pa Cochise, Lucky Arrow (the mother), Swift Feather (boy, ten, the father's son from a previous relationship), and Memphis (girl, five, the mother's daughter from a previous relationship). Both parents are sound documentarians (or documentarists, as one insists), the mother intent on getting to the southwest because she has become passionately invested in the plight of the refugee children entering the US from Mexico. The father, not native but an avid student of that history, wants to see where Geronimo lived. 

First textual plane: the mother's narration, in the foreground for the first two-thirds of the novel, focused sometimes on the kids, sometimes on the refugee children, and increasingly on her fracturing relationship with her husband. The mom is a reader, and her narration is aware of itself as a participant in  the Literary Road Trip tradition of Huck and Jim, Sal and Dean, Humbert and Lolita, but from the new perspective of wife and mother.

Second textual plane: a book the mother is reading, Elegies for Lost Children, by Elena Camposanto (but actually by Luiselli herself). The elegies are short texts that use phrases from Rilke, Pound, Eliot, et al. to depict with just a few highly lit details--a kind of chiaroscuro--a group of refugee children making their way north. These start popping up into the narrative about halfway through.

Third textual plane: When the family reaches Arizona, the ten-year-old boy and five-year-old girl light out on their own to make their way to a particular Apache site, Echo Canyon. Swift Feather, the boy, narrates these episodes, recording them into one of their mother's devices.

Why do the kids go off on their own? Luiselli very astutely leaves this open. Do they hope, by becoming refugees themselves, to become as interesting to their parents as the refugee children are? Do they feel like testing themselves the way the refugee children are being tested? do they see this as the only way they will be able to stay together since, if their parents separate, they will be separated too?

Luiselli keeps all these plates spinning skillfully, not only building up bestseller-style suspense (will the parents find the kids before they die in the desert as so many kids have?) but also, in the section titled "Echo Canyon," having the planes intersect in a way I never saw coming but that was transcendently moving.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Molly Worthen, _Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism_

EVERY ONCE IN a while I wander into an evangelical Christian bookstore, mainly because I have a hard time staying out of bookstores, and it is always a slightly eerie experience, like entering a parallel world. They tend to be organized like most bookstores—a biography section, current events over here, sexuality and relationships over there, self-help, classics, romances—but the shelves of those sections hold none of the titles and authors so ubiquitous elsewhere, and are instead loaded with titles and authors you will never find anywhere else. 

American Evangelical Christian culture is a world unto itself, one that borders on the USA the rest of us live in, but rarely overlaps with it. As a world unto itself, it has its own intellectual class, and Worthen’s book is a history of that class during the 20th century.

The idea of an evangelical intellectual may seem paradoxical, since intellectuals are supposed to be willing to re-examine periodically their assumptions, revise their conclusions when appropriate, and be open to new knowledge, while evangelicals famously regard certain questions as settled and eternally closed. For exactly that reason, as Worthen recounts, evangelical colleges and universities had to go a few rounds with accreditation agencies back in the day, and dialogue between secular intellectuals and evangelical intellectuals simply does not take place.

Evangelicals have their own explanations for this lack of communication, though. Worthen notes the seminal influence of Cornelius van Til and his idea of “presuppositionalism,” according to which secular intellectuals are much less objective, open-minded, and clear-headed than they think themselves, operating under assumptions they have so long ceased to examine that they are no longer cognizant of them, self-deluded in ways they can no longer see. It’s the secular intellectuals who have the blinders on, according to this view.

Worthen cleared out a good many other unexamined, cobwebbed spots in my conceptions about the evangelicals. They are not all right-wing, for one thing, although that is the preponderance lately. They have had some fruitful dialogue with Catholics, not just about abortion, but also about spiritual disciplines and practices. 

Worthen acknowledges that some extremely popular evangelical intellectuals, like Francis Schaeffer and Hal Lindsey (both of whom would have topped the NYT bestseller lists in the 1970s and 1980s had religious books been eligible), are under-informed and shallow compared to secular historians and mainstream scholars of religion. But she also wants us to know that Schaeffer and Lindsey (and LaHaye and Robertson and Falwell) are not the whole story. I don’t know whether Worthen is an evangelical herself—the final chapter has a certain exhortatory vertical lift that makes me think she may be—but she definitely left me thinking that this intellectual tradition is under-studied and probably under-valued by the rest of us.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Chris Nealon, _The Shore_ (2 of 2): The NWTI

A LINE ON p. 69 of Nealon's book of poems set me thinking.

But I know a dozen teenagers with better politics than Auden

Has Nealon hit upon a simple, linear way to describe the politics of canonical poets? We can simply judge how many teenagers within the range of acquaintance of, say, a college professor would have better politics than Poet X, or Poet Y, or Poet Z.

W. H. Auden would have a Nealon Woke Teenager Index, or NWTI, of 12. Robert Lowell would probably not do as well, perhaps in the forties or fifties--good on Vietnam, but that homophobic stanza in "Skunk Hour" is going to hurt him. 

Elizabeth Bishop might not do even as well as Lowell, given her somewhat scoffing attitude about the women's movement and her support for the 1960s military coup in Brazil. The minstrelsy/blackface imagery in Dream Songs could put John Berryman in the low one-hundreds.

Ezra Pound or W. B. Yeats would be in the high three figures, perhaps, eight hundred, nine hundred. We might have to establish an upper limit for those cases in which the poet has worse politics than any teenager one is likely to meet in the 2020s, like Pound or Yeats. Or Alexander Pope: "Whatever is, is right"? Okay, boomer.

Speaking of Pope, going deeper into the past could raise some interesting discussions. Shelley's revolutionary principles could get him down to eight or nine, even, lower than Auden, but his gender politics could ratchet him up to the thirties or forties. Charlotte Brontë's gender politics could bring her down to the teens, but Shirley's take on organized labor might put her in the nineties. Jane Austen might demonstrate a similar mobility. William Blake may be the only zero in the canon. 

Perhaps we need not even confine ourselves to literary figures. How many teenagers  does one know with better politics than Napoleon? Or Alexander Hamilton? What would Lincoln's NWTI be?

Chris Nealon, _The Shore_ (1/2)

SOME YEARS AGO, I read Christopher Nealon's Foundlings, a brilliant study of some instances of the LGBTQ sensibility breaking (or almost breaking) the surface of public culture in the decades before Stonewall. I only found out recently that Nealon is also a poet--he was one of the readers at a Zoom poetry reading I caught this spring. And a really good one, at that.

The Shore contains five poems, all of them a bit longer than average--ten to twenty pages. Part of the length is accounted for by Nealon's use of "one-line stanzas" (as I think he calls them in one of the poems), single lines standing all by themselves as a sort of moment of their own in a thought process--"Down into matter, flux, the green world" or "The whole taut net of the social order." This generates a fair amount of white space--some pages may have only ten or twelve lines--even allowing for that, though, the poems do feel like "long poems," taking their time, unfolding a thought, crossing it with another, then wait-a-minute-what-about-this, then touching on something from a lifetime of reading, then connecting an old memory.

The effect reminded me of the soliloquies of Henry VI or Richard II in Shakespeare's history plays. Nealon's poems have the same process of opening up of a thought, but are also similarly erudite (helps to know who Ascanius and Hocquenghem are, for example), lyrical ("a hint of lemon in the eucalyptus"), self-aware, willing to probe old wounds, also willing to test out new ideas--"branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain," as Keats says. 

When Henry and Richard give their major statements, they are both insiders and outsiders--royal, but deposed--abject and commanding the heights at the very same time. Nealon's exploration of queerness (throughout, but especially in "You Surround Me"), whiteness ("White Meadows") and the perils of our late capitalist moment (throughout, but especially "The Shore" and "Last Glimpse") have that self-aware clarity that Henry and Richard have when things have gone completely to hell, and might even persuade one that the insight gained is worth the cost of things having gone to hell.

Nealon also offers up a line I feel like commenting on at greater length--but that can gets its own post.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Sophia Rosenfeld, _Democracy and Truth: A Short History_

ROSENFELD PRESCIENTLY ADDRESSES a problem that has only grown more acute in the year-plus since this book appeared.

Democracy works best with an informed citizenry. When decisions depend on a majority vote, we hope that as many people as possible have as much of the relevant knowledge as they possibly can. That is why free speech, freedom of the press, and universal public education are democracy's indispensable  corollaries. 

However, many kinds of knowledge are such that relatively few people can master them. Particle physics, say. How hedge funds work. The philosophy of Wittgenstein. In these areas, we usually have to rely on experts  for what knowledge we have.

But can we trust experts? What if a majority of us think, no, we cannot trust experts, they are trying to manipulate us? 

Or--what if information is pouring out in such an unceasing, prolific fashion, 24/7, that we hardly know which expert to trust?

Thus, our ability to distinguish real knowledge from its deceitful simulacra, our ability to discern and then act in accordance with the truth, lies near the core of democracy, and that ability is always under a lot of stress. 

Rosenfeld is in one respects picking up on what Richard Hofstadter was addressing in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics, though a bit less polemically and with more contemporary examples. And contemporary examples abound all over the world these days, from Brazil to India to Hungary to right here in the good old USA. Climate change, COVID-19, and publicly-funded health care are all topics on which the experts can say one thing while Trump and his epigones say, "nah, that's all bullshit," and too often just enough people will prefer the blusterer to the experts.

Have to say, my very favorite part of Democracy and Truth is Rosenfeld's answer (pp. 140-46) to the many pundits who found in Trump's post-truth tactics a reverberation of various post-structuralist critiques of knowledge. With Derrida having died in 2004 and Foucault in 1984, you would think that these two would no longer be to blame for everything op-ed writers found to dislike in academia, but no...they remain popular targets for a certain kind of grouch who misses the  days of Lionel Trilling. Rosenfeld very convincingly points instead to the dropping of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and the subsequent rise of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News as the turning points, rather than Of Grammatology and Les mots and les choses.

Cathy Park Hong, _Dance Dance Revolution_

WITH MINOR FEELINGS making a splash, there is reason to hope that readers will be inspired to check out Hong's poetry. This one would certainly be worth your while.

Dance Dance Revolution is a poetry collection, but it has a novel-like premise. One of the book's voices is a historian (Korean father, American mother) who grew up in Africa (their father was with Doctors Without Borders). In the course of their research into the Kwangju massacre (a bloody government crackdown on a student protest that occurred in South Korea in 1980, comparable to Tlateleolco in Mexico or Tiananmen Square in China), the historian tracks down a woman was one of the inspirational figures in the protest, its La Pasionaria. This woman is now working as a tourist guide at some deluxe resort town, located in a desert and filled with replicas of world historical sites, something Las Vegas or Dubai.

Good so far? Okay. Dance Dance Revolution includes some passages from the historian's journal and his/her/their notes to some of the guide's discourses (the poems in Part V might be from the historian...I'm not sure), but the greater part of the book consists of poems in the voice of the guide. Some of these are about her present circumstances, some about her memories of Korea, of Kwangju, and of the Ginseng Colony, which seems to be a short-lived experiment in community that started up after Kwangju.

The guide's poems are in an extraordinary hybrid language that draws on the vocabulary and syntax of several different languages at once, sometimes even on different historical eras of the same language. Finnegans Wake is the only handy analogue, but Hong's language is quite distinct from Joyce's--fizzier, saltier, more staccato. Its music is its own.

Within this polyglot nova is a meditation on dissent and resistance. The book was published in 2007, but is set in 2016--presciently, I'm thinking, given that was the year so many folks had to start thinking hard again about dissent and resistance. With so many thousands pouring out in the streets again, this would be a great time for people to pick up Dance Dance Revolution.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Wesley Yang, _The Souls of Yellow Folk: Essays_

YANG’S TITLE MISLEADS slightly, I would say. The deliberate echo of the title of W. E. B. DuBois's famous analysis of the African American situation led me to think that Yang's book would be about the Asian American situation. Some of it is, but most of it is not.

The first three essays are, and they are very striking, especially the first, "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho," Yang's unforgettable response to the devastating school shooting at Virginia Tech. I read this piece in n+1 when it appeared, and it its the main reason I took a chance on the book. The essay takes you inside the experience of being an American minority as only a handful of essays do, and in this case it is an American minority that has gotten only sporadic attention and even today is still largely obscured by clichés and stereotypes. "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho" leads off the volume, and the two essays that follow it in Part One, "Paper Tigers" and "Eddie Huang Against the World," are only a subtle shade less intense. As a group, they are revelatory.

That's about it, though. The final three essays in  the book, which constitute Part Four, are about whiteness, Yang engaging somewhat skeptically with critical race theory but not touching much upon the issues raised in Part One. Parts Two and Three are simply general journalistic pieces. Part Two is four personality profiles (the one on Tony Judt I especially appreciated), and the three pieces in Part Three are about being an under-40 male sexual subject in the 21st century. Interesting stuff, well-reported and skillfully written, but not about the souls of yellow folk, really.

I may be missing a connection in Part Three--being a male Asian American in the 21st century may entail a certain anxiousness over one's sexual charisma, as presented in Adrian Tomine's graphic novel Shortcomings. That topic does not really come up explicitly in Part Three, though.

The Souls of Yellow Folk definitely works as an essay collection--don't get me wrong. But had the book been called The Face of Seung-Hui Cho and Other Essays I still would have purchased it, but would not have had that lingering aftertaste of disappointed expectations.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Joshua Cohen, _Moving Kings_

I AM A great admirer of Joshua Cohen's fiction, and have been for a while--I got in on the ground floor, so to speak, with Cadenzas for the Schneiderman Violin Concerto. I bought Moving Kings about the time it came out, but until two weeks ago it was just sitting undisturbed on the shelf. I've been wondering why it took me three years to read it. 

The cover, in part. This is the first Cohen book with a boring cover. I know books are not to be judged by their covers, but come on, Random House! You can do better than this! 

And in part because it seemed to be the closest Cohen had yet come to a conventional novel. Not fair of me, I know. But there is a moment when a favorite writer decides to tack towards the mainstream (cf. Ben Marcus, or Sonic Youth signing with Geffen, that sort of thing). You fully understand that it is the right thing for them to do, but that understanding has a melancholy edge.

Well, I shouldn't have worried. Moving Kings is less innovative, formally, than Cohen's previous work, but the sentences still reconcile strength and grace, the novelistic eye still lands again and again on the most revealing detail, and the ambition to plumb the depths of Jewish experience remains at the core of the enterprise. 

The first part of the novel is about David King, who is King David to a small empire, a moving business in New York City and environs. His father was a Holocaust survivor who came to the USA; his father's brother emigrated instead to Israel, where he started his own family. So right there we have an interesting contrast between different paths out of the Shoah taken by members of the same family. 

David's family life takes on familiar kinds of American (and King David-esque) complications, marriage, adultery, divorce, kids who are just a bit contemptuous. On the other side of the world, his uncle has a daughter, who has a son, which son is fresh out of the Israeli army (which has its own empire-building complications). The Israeli cousin calls David up--could he find Yoav a job? Send him over, says David.

Trailing Yoav comes Uri, from Yoav's old unit. Both are suffering from PTSD, but Yoav seems to be making the stronger effort to get clear of it--Uri verges on the sociopathic.

As it happens, David's moving business has recently picking up a new kind of work: evictions. Yoav and Uri find themselves assigned to a team doing exactly this--which rhymes, hauntingly, chillingly, with what they had been doing in Judea/West Bank/Occupied Territories. In Israel, the idea was simply to smash; in New York City, they are to salvage what they think can be sold: "Otherwise, the work they were doing wasn't too different."

That was a sentence I had to stop and stare at for a minute or two. Like plenty of folks, I think what the Israeli government is doing is wrong. But is what's going on when someone gets evicted a few blocks away any less wrong? Am I a hypocrite, a coward, to object to the one but not the other?

Are we headed to a big blazing climax? Yes.

So far, Cohen's tacking to the mainstream is working out just fine.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Emily Berry, _Dear Boy_

READING EXCERPTS THAT have appeared here and there from a longer poem called "Unexhausted Time" got me sufficiently interested to buy Berry's first book (she has three out, it looks like). 

Her poetry seems English to me--by which I only mean that I can't think of any Americans who sound much like this. American poetry gravitates to the confrontational rather than the clever, the earnest rather than the fey. You would have to look for a while, I think, to find a recent American poem that opens in any way reminiscent of the opening of "The Tea-party Cats":

We're suspicious of the tea-party cats;
we don't know why. They all turned out so well
today and aired their charming characters;
they were so smart they frightened us to death.

It is easy to imagine a recent American poem that, like "Some Fears," catalogues fears, but not one that includes "fear of colour leaking from vegetables" or "fear of ill-conceived typography." Similarly, it's had to imagine any American poet since Millay writing a poem like "When Will You Carry Me to the Fair," even with tongue in cheek, and even if it ends on the lines, "Lover when will you pull a root from the earth / and show me its straggly ends?"

The hypotenuse that runs between "clever" and "fey" we might call "whimsy," but I would rather not use that word. It would just give you the wrong idea. Whimsy would work on Instagram, but Berry is too dry and scary for Instagram. Too intelligent, for that matter.  Whimsy might well be the word one initially reaches for first in talking about "Hermann's Traveling Heart," a poem about a tortoise in love, but "whimsy" is too close to "cute" to apply. Even Berry's humorous moments, which are frequent, wouldn't pass any cuteness test.

Judging from the excerpts from "Unexhausted Time" that I read, Berry's new work is as many strides beyond her early work as North was beyond Death of a Naturalist, but I certainly enjoyed it, and very much want a look at the second collection.