Monday, December 28, 2009

All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones

I'm reading All Aunt Hagar's Children, Edward P. Jones' second short story collection. It's good, depressing, dense, etc. The DC stuff amazes me, this whole rich novelistic life of the streets. He's got a particularly crushing line in the story "Root Worker" about my high school:

"Long before they reached 1st, N.E., Glynnis found that so much had changed, disappeared, but everything that was important to white people remained. Gonzaga High School. The railroad. After 1st Street, she saw that many of the places she had known as a girl were still standing, and that gave her heart some relief."

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

The final installment, not out in America until May. I broke down and bought it from Amazon UK. Fully worthy part three, inconceivable to me that he could sustain it over three length novels. This one concerns a shadowy government organization, sort of intelligence-ish, that runs foreign spies who've sought asylum in Sweden. More soon. Let's hope Hollywood doesn't t fuck up the movies.

Winter's Bone

Daniel Woodrell sure can write a sentence. He manages, in Winter's Bone, not only to come up with a convincing, emotionally-taut plot, but his lean, beautiful prose makes the entire journey through the Ozark white-trash countryside a wonder. His protagonist, 16 year old Rees Dolly, searches for her missing father, who has defaulted on a jail bond, unwittingly putting the house at risk for repossession where Rees lives in with her demented mother and two younger brothers. Rees is a supergirl, taking care of her charges tenderly and completely, teaching her younger brothers to shoot a gun in the fear that they will need the skill much sooner than later. Her relatives, a sprawling, vicious, secretive and ancient Ozarks clan, threaten her, succor her, and ultimately confound her in her search.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

The Zero by Jess Walter

Best book about September 11 that I've seen so far.

I could not put it down, but still felt peckish and discerning as if
something in the narrative tension lessened along the way. The first half was very classic modern noir, sort of Jonathan Lethem, GUN WITH OCCASIONAL MUSIC and the film MEMENTO, but the second half dissolved into Delillo-ish trumped-up profundities. I missed his partner's presence (he jumps back in at the very end, but I liked him a lot), and I just sort of auto- read after I realized that the plot was also, ultimately, going to be beyond the protagonist's grasp too.

The Believers by Zoe Heller

The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardham

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Citizen Vince by Jess Walter

I could not put it down, but still felt peckish and discerning as if
something in the narrative tension lessened along the way. The first half was very classic modern noir, sort of Jonathan Lethem, GUN WITH OCCASIONAL MUSIC and the film MEMENTO, but the second half dissolved into Delillo-ish trumped-up profundities. I missed his partner's presence (he jumps back in at the very end, but I liked him a lot), and I just sort of auto- read after I realized that the plot was also, ultimately, going to be beyond the protagonist's grasp too.

The Prisoner tv series

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

it's crazy accessible and friendly and funny.
What gives with the guy? Last novel made me so very angry.

I’m halfway through and he’s still introducing new characters every page or so, it’s a pastiche of a satire of a crazy board game, but at least it’s finishable (he says, not finishing it just yet.)

it’s Pynchon-lite, for sure, but eminently get-through-able, which has never been his affliction. and the old-LA-nostalgia-ness of it rings true. Plus, it’s like the detailed novel THE BIG LEBOWSKI never came from – and reminded me of you through and through. it’s a pastiche of a cartoon of a satire of a board game – you constantly have to refer to the instructions the whole time through, just to know where you are – but still, it’s a dish, and he’s 72, so who knows what else he’ll write.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

I’ve just finished Birds of America and Who Will Run, and would like to stand amended on my initial hesitation at Lorrie Moore's writing style.

The voice she uses everywhere in BoA is just extraordinary – I guess I’ve evolved from “who talks that way?” to “she talks that way and just sit back and wathc it work.” She’s outrageously funny to at almost all times – even her throwaway lines are burnished. “She didn’t mind Chicago. She thought of it as a cross between London and Queens, with a dash of Cleveland.” That’s from “Willing,” about the over-the-hill movie actress who moves back to Chicago from LA and starts dating an auto mechanic named Walt. “Which is More Than I Can Say about Some People” chronicles a trip to Ireland by a mother and daughter. The daughter’s marriage is failing, and she spends the vacation watching her elderly mother open up and try new things and show great signs of life.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

This much-ballyhooed new novel from Colm Toibin is another purely perfectly-pitched narrative, but it did not hit me nearly as hard as his earlier novels, particularly The Master, Toibin's channeling of Henry James in a ficitional omniscient memoir.

The good things are great: Toibin feels more and more to me like a more sensitive Hemingway, his sentences are transparently clean and there is not a trace of authorial voice intrusion. Everything in the books sounds exactly like something thought or said by one of the characters. He writes small, perfect sentences, and they build up incredible incremental pressure within characters, eventually delivering powerful change.

America via New York via Brooklyn is lovingly rendered, as a real place, already grown in many ways and still growing. The novel's protganist, a young woman named Eilisa, emigrates to America at the urging of her beautiful, vivacious older sister Rose and their widowed mother, who are both anxious to do for Eilis what they can't do for themselves: fundamentally change their lives. And Eilis, passive, quiet and aching to please, accepts the mission, sufffering a perilous crossing and a lonely first year in a rooming house in Brooklyn, working as a "floor worker" at a large department store.

Byron in Love by Edna O'Brien

A beautiful, succinct, witty, knowing condensation of a jam-packed (if brief) love-life and life of letters. O'Brien sounds like she knew Byron personally, she is so skilled at linking and narrating the history of his affections. It drove me to read a full-length biography of Byron, Fiona MacCarthy's Byron: Life and Legend, which is also tremendous. Byron's bisexuality, his affair with his half-sister, his courting and finagling of royalty and near-royalty, all burst from this lovely book.

So, we'll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

Stick by Elmore Leonard

Continue to love every Elmore Leonard title I've ever read. (Full disclosure: not true. Have had Pagan Babies on the bench for ages, started it at least twice, can't get traction. Exception proving rule?) Stick is the latest, an earlier title, published in 1983. Leonard's prose is less dialogue-laden than the later novels, there is more scene description, more narration of the interior state of mind of the protagonist, Earnest "Stick" Stickley. The setting is familiar Florida: Miami, South Beach, Fort Lauderdale. Stickley is familiar too: just sprung from jail, a bank-robber (of course!), this time determined to work a different beat, a different grift.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

That Old Cape Magic

I'm a scandal, it's true, but I was disappointed by the new novel That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo. (I also was disappointed by his last one, Bridge of Sighs.) Is is judging a living master too harshly? If all his books were written, and I was just reading through the career, perhaps I would have liked it better, cut it more slack, thought it minor, but sharp anyway. Instead, because he is in the middle (well, late middle) of an illustrious career, I keep waiting for him to return to what I consider the peak of his writing: Empire Falls and Straight Man.

It's certainly not unenjoyable -- Russo can be hilarious, and he writes internal male anguish as well as anyone around today -- but I found the plot line boring, several of the lesser characters thin, several of the devices Russo employs (for most of the novel, he's carrying around either one or both of the urns containing his dead father and mother's ashes) too pat, too handy, too -- symbolic.

He weaves his several plot lines, as is his style, over half a century, juxtaposing and springing elusive memories on you just as he usually does -- with drama, in emotionally-certain movements.

The End of the West by Michael Dickman

Don't know why this book of poem's reminds me of Rilke's Duino Elegies, but will try to suss it out. Though the language is much more transparent (in Dickman), the velocity and vertigo are similar, the ache.

Dickman's landscape for his poems, as it were, is emotional: mostly he engages family and friends directly, addresses them, in a one-sided conversation that violently plucks and juxtaposes images from his tragic, if witty, wound of an imagination. Everything is lost, or being lost, or there are plans in the works for its loss.

The form is open field free verse, with wads of silent white space between lines and stanza. He relies on anaphora.

Nervous System

Make a list
of everything that's
ever been

on fire -

Abandoned cars
The sea

Your mother burned down to the skeleton

so she could come back, born back from her bed, and walk around the
house again, exhausted
in slippers

What else?

Your brain
Your eyes
Your lungs


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Lisbeth Salander, Girl of Girls

If you've been living under a rock, and haven't either read about this author and these two novels (and the third, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, coming out 10/1 in Britain and 10/31 in the U.S.), I'm hear to preach to you, son, so hold out your hand and close your eyes and ask the ghost of Stieg Larsson to touch you and deliver his novels unto you.

Haven't been this enthralled by novels in forever. I’m addicted, it’s like mind-meth.

Will try to write about it , trying to figure out why there is something so exceptional abour his style, the clean white room of the Swedish speaking soul , the way all the characters seem to sound like emotionless Swedish detectives, the level of bureaucratic detail Larsson so effortlessly effects.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Experience, by Martin Amis

"In one of his most stunning utterances Nietzsche said that a joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling. * * A passing note. When Princess Diana died it took four or five days for the jokes to marinate. When John Kennedy Jr died the jokes were instantaneous, electronic, light-speed. The feeling, in other words, had no chance to exist; it was born dead. One wonders, too, about subsequent road kill on the information highway."
It’s an unusual book, more moving in the depth of its completion than any of his novels, even Success and Money, my favorites. He tells the very busy, if at times too baroquely detailed, stories of a) his life up to the moment, b) his relationship with his family with a definite concentration on his father and c) the serial murder of his cousin when he was still a young man. The way he fractures the narrative in time and place is eerie, not quite right, but very poetical and atmospheric, and the three stories, with millions of other smaller stories, insult each other sometimes and cozy up at others. It’s not compelling formally but you enter deeply each scene and vignette. They’re either vivid or vicious (or both).

The photographs he includes in three sections are also intriguing because they’re not really in order and are deliberately misleading in their captions: photographs of his two wives, a couple of lovers, his parents and children and Philip Larkin, and then his cousin Parkington who was strangled (at least) by Frederick West, a particularly horrifying British serial murderer.

And Amis is devoted to poetry. His father was no small poet and his father’s best friend was Philip Larkin. He piggishly smokes cigarettes and drinks and lets it all hang out sexually, but he’s also very interested in how everything appears to him, the way people talk and impress and betray or are just silent toward each other to him, what’s the motivation?

from Jake by Kingsley Amis:
Jake did a quick run-through of women in his mind, not the ones he had known and dealt with in the past few months or years so much as all of them: their concern with the surface of things, with objects and appearances, with their surroundings and how they looked and sounded in them, with seeming to be better and to be right while getting everything wrong, their automatic assumption of the role of the injured party in any clash of wills, their certainty that a view is the more credible and useful for the fact that they hold it, their use of misunderstanding and misrepresentation as weapons of debate, their selective sensitivity to tones of voice, their unawareness of the difference in themselves between sincerity and insincerity, their interest in importance (together with noticeable inability to discriminate in that sphere), their fondness for general conversation and directionless discussion, their pre-emption of the major share of feeling, their exaggerated estimate of their own plausibility, their never listening and lots of other things like that, all according to him.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

St. Luke's Labyrinth, Bethesda MD

Today I am planning on taking the kids over to Bethesda, picking up my mother, and walking the nearby St. Luke's Labyrinth. This will accomplish my childrens' longing for mystery and Harry-Potter-like anachronistic gothicisms (i.e., they love labyrinths) and my mother's need to exercise. Supposed to get hot (94 degrees) so we will probably not stay long. Thought I'd write a pre-emptive note about it, to keep me subconsciously alert to any opportunities for concentrated thinking or imagery. Here's the church's opening description of the site: "The labyrinth has a single path for walking into and returning from the center. Unlike a maze, the labyrinth has no false turns or blind alleys. You cannot get lost." What's not to love about that? Also, the church's suggested prayer for meditation while walking: "Bless this labyrinth and all who walk it, O God. By the power of your Holy Spirit, make this a safe path, a path of discovery, a holy path. May all who walk this path be strengthened to serve all creation in your name."

Letter's to Wendy's

September 27, 996

If we think of the future as the Pritty Titty Bah-B-Q, and the past as a Motion-Excreting Machine (excreting through the pores), we get a much clearer picture of the present. Will the present is forever beginning to be a buffet, it is always already eaten away to the point of shimmering. This shimmering should not be confused with what is actually edible.
Wendy's restaurant comment cards beg customers to "Tell us about your visit," and Wenderoth writes a year-long diary this way.

They call it fiction but I was reading it like a long thick burger of prose poems: am I wrong. There are no characters but the speaker. There is no plot but the calendar.

If there are themes to the entries (each one no longer than a medium-length paragraph of five or six sentences, and some shorter than that), they are pornography, American plastic culture, a sort of existential philosophy tethered by junk food and anonymity, solipsistic desire-fulfillment. But it's funnier than all that, sad, too, sometimes, in a sentimental way.

In fact, the Wendy's setting provides the intellectual space for an almost infinite deconstructive exercise.
November 25, 1996

This idiotic notion that one should love the other customers. Love here really only means: agree, for the time being, not to attack. People pretend, though, that each customer is an irreplaceable piece of some priceless puzzle -- like the death of each customer is significant for every other customer. It's just not true; one cannot love what one does not know, and -- unfortunately -- one knows very little.'

November 27, 1996

The Virgin Mother appeared to me today. She was holding two baked potatoes with sour cream and chives. "The're delicious," she said, and she smiled, emanating a great white light. I took one from her. It was warm and inviting. I cut into it with my plastic fork and plastic knife and I took a bite. It was, as usual, very dry. She held out the other potato to me. "You try it," I said, "it's dry as fuck."

December 11, 1996

Thinking presses on one, demands that being admit its foundation in sense. Faith relieves this pressure. Its strange babbling is learned intuitively, like a way of laughing. The most stupefying faith there has ever been is the faith in "heaven." Such a faith proposes the abrupt and complete end of sense. This proposal cannot even conceivably be accepted, however much one cries, "I accept, I accept."

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

By the end of the year it happened that she had quite lost interest in the man himself, but was deeply absorbed in his mind, from which she had extracted, among other things, his religion as a pith from a husk. Her mind was as full of his religion as a night sky is full of things visible and invisible. She left the man and took his religion and became a nun in the course of time.

the creme de la creme

the dialogue for the character of Jean Brodie is almost impossible to excerpt, it is all pitch-perfect and eminently quotable.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Throne of Blood by Akira Kurosawa

The reason this film trumps all other Shakespeare adaptions to cinema is simple: it doesn't care a whit for the original, cerebral, figurative and image-laden language. It carves all the meat off the bone of the plot, and uses music, atmosphere, stark melodramatic performances, and visual imagery instead.

Some of the sounds -- the wind howling up and down Mount Fuji, where the film was located, the whinnying of the battle-mad horses, the solid percussion of the actors' bare feet running in measured syncopated blocking, the whistle and impact of arrows -- take on the force of characters themselves.

Yamada's Lady Asaji is bone-chilling. Her face barely moves, her pale white makeup is passive, and she has eyebrows drawn on two level of her forehead. When she finally breaks down near the film's end, endlessly washing her spotless hands in a room whose walls are covered with an innocent victim's blood (the notorious traitor Fujimaki killed himself in the same room, now known as the Forbidden Room), wailing that she can't get clean, the effect is almost euphoric. Earlier, she exits through a panel in the dwelling's wall, vanishing into pitch black, then returning seconds later with a pitcher of drink for her husband.

Mifune's Washizu scowls even when he is laughing.

mist, colossal trees dripping with rain, rich black volcanic soil and bulky fortress architecture

Noh thousand-year-old theatrical tradition

The Noh stage must have on it three pine branches and a symbolic Shinto temple-arch. In the film, shots are carefully composed to include tangles of branches in the foreground, and the vast entrance gate of Washizu's fortress serves for the temple arch.
A Noh play features a "doer" (Shite) and a "companion" (Waku) who plays a subordinate role. Washizu and Asaji are the Shite and Waku respectively. Elements in the Noh include a battle-drama (we get one here) and a so-called "wig drama", in which a female character dominates the action. This is the central portion of the film, in the quiet of the fortress quarters, when Asaji ruthlessly manipulates her husband's ambition. Every Noh play has a ghost which appears to the Shite, and the spirit in the forest fulfils that function. Noh plays are never original works, in that (by a venerable convention) they are re-workings of ancient legends. Kurosawa follows tradition by quarrying his tale from Shakespeare's play.

There is no western term to describe the stylized striking of poses so important in Noh. Our word "dance" is a crude word which approximates to, but does not convey, the grace of the Japanese art-form. Asaji, alone with the blood-stain, gives us a glimpse of this delightful ritual.

Finally, Noh contains an aural richness almost totally absent from western tragedy - the complex rhythms of stamping and percussion which accompany the spoken word. In the film, the rhythmic patterns of horses' hooves on soil, and Washizu's bare feet on the boards of the banquet hall, are meant to reinforce the mood as they creep into our emotions by subliminal insistence.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Drama City by George Pelecanos

Drama City is my introduction to homegrown DC crime writer George Pelecanos, and I am mightily impressed. The crime plot is good , the characters very solid (a paroled felon trying to go straight as an animal-control officer, his very sympathetic and secretly sex-addicted female parole officer), it meshes mightily halfway through and I couldn't put it down -- but it's the Washington DC landscape Pelecanos paints that is most impressive. The Georgia Avenue-Petworth-Shaw corridor geographical and sociological detail which he provides are mesmerizing. Having just finished Richard Price's monumental Lush Life, about criminals and wannabes and yuppies and tired cops on Manhattan's lower East Side, it was easy for me to peg Pelecano's as our own Price.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Jamesland by Michele Huneven

This gorgeously-written eclectic novel takes place in the Los Feliz neighborhood near Hollywood, in Los Angeles. Equal parts philosophical/religious treatise, self-help/addiction/mental-health handbook, and deep character-based fiction along the lines of a Henry James, the Jamesland of the title actually refers to Henry's older brother William James, widely credited with the invention of modern psychology, but also a well-know philosopher and religious thinker.

The three central characters: Helen Harland, a Unitarian Universalist pastor struggling to hold onto her year-old position at a new church, where she is faced with a congregation that finds her too religious, Pete Ross, forever pondering the question "How do people live in this world?", a mentally-ill, obese, renowned chef who suffered numerous breakdowns, lost his job, wife and children and is now living with his mother (who became a nun at age 40), and Alice Black, sometimes-bartender, great-great-granddaughter of William James, caring for her eccentric, sometimes brilliant, sometimes-demented great-aunt Kate, who is writing a book on William James, but alternately delusional and believing she is living in William James' time. Alice is reeling from her affair with the husband of movie star.

The plot is a series of dinners and events planned by Helen in which she gradually brings the two misfits Alice and Pete together, at the same time finding peace herself with her annoying congregation and distant husband. Pete's exotic cuisines (from his stint as an accomplished chef), Alice's aunt's detailed obsession with the religious, philosophical and extra-sensory research of Williams James also contribute to the tapestry.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Road Dogs

Elmore Leonard's latest offering centers around two men who became friends doing prison terms in Florida, who reunite in Venice Beach after getting out, to squabble over a woman, who tries to play them both and take the money and row.

Once again we meet Jack Foley fished out of the clink after serving some years of a 30-year sentence. Inside he has met and befriended Cundo Rey, a dimunitive, wealthy, aggressive and sex-crazed Cuban who pulls some of his many strings and gets them both out early.

Cundo's wife Dawn (both Cundo and Dawn are also recurring Leonard characters ). But Dawn is lovely and wily (and maybe a psychic), Cundo is a murderously jealous husband who may well think Jack owes him big-time, and Jack? Well, when you've robbed a hundred-twenty or so banks, is it that easy to go straight?

I marvel at Leonard's dialogue-writing skills. This book is fully 75% dialogue.

“What I don’t understand,” Cundo said, walking the yard with Foley, “I see you as a hip guy, you smart for a fucking bank robber, but two falls, man, one on top the other, you come out you right back in the slam. Tell me how you think about it, a smart guy like you have to look at thirty years.”

Foley said, “You know how a dye pack works? The teller slips you one, it looks like a pack of twenties in a bank strap. It explodes as you leave the bank. Something in the doorframe sets it off. I walk out of a bank in Redondo Beach, the dye pack goes off and I’m sprayed with red paint, people on the street looking at me. Twenty years of going in banks and coming out clean, my eyes open. I catch a dye pack and spend the next seven in federal detention, Lompoc, California. I came out,” Foley said, “and did a bank in Pomona the same day. You fall off a bike you get back on. I think, Good, I’ve still got it. I made over six grand in Pomona. I come back to Florida— my wife Adele divorced me while I’m at Lompoc and she’s having a tough time paying her bills. She’s working for a magician, Emile the Amazing, jumping out of boxes till he fired her and hired a girl Adele said has bigger tits and was younger. I do a bank in
Lake Worth with the intention, give Adele the proceeds to keep her going for a few months. I leave the bank in the Honda I’m using, America’s most popular stolen car at the time. Now I’m waiting to make a left turn on to Dixie Highway and I hear the car behind me going va-room va-room, revving up, the guy can’t wait. He backs up
and cuts around me, his tires screaming, like I’m a retiree waiting to make the turn when it’s safe to pull out.”

“You just rob the fucking bank,” Cundo said.

“And this guy’s showing me what a hotdog he is.”

“So you go after him,” Cundo said.

“I tore after him, came up on the driver’s side and stared at him.”

“Gave him the killer look,” Cundo said.

“That’s right, and he gives me the finger. I cranked the wheel and sideswiped him, stripped his chrome and ran him off the road.”

“I would’ve shot the fucker,” Cundo said.

“What happened, I tore up both tires on the side I swiped him. By the time I got the car pulled over, a deputy’s coming up behind me with lights flashing.”

“Tha’s called road rage,” Cundo said. “I’m surprise, a cool guy like you losing it. How you think it happen?”

“I wasn’t paying attention. I let myself catch a dye pack in Redondo Beach, something I swore would never happen. The next one, seven years later, you’re right, I lost it. You know why? Because a guy with a big engine wearing shades, the top down, no idea I’d just robbed a bank, made me feel like a wimp. And that,” Foley
said, “is some serious shit to consider.”

“Man, you got the balls to bust out of prison, you don’t have to prove nothing.”

“Out for a week and back inside.”

“What could you do? The girl shot you, the chick marshal. You don’t tell me about her.”

Karen Sisco. Foley kept her to himself. She gave him moments to think about and look at over and over for a time, a few months now, but there weren’t enough moments to last thirty years.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Poor George by Paula Fox

Poor George, Paula Fox

This is a slow-working novel, like a drink you've never had before and doubt its kick, and then you wake up with a broken tooth, a throbbing headache, lying next to a woman who doesn't speak English.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Lonesome Dove

So I'm 20 years behind on this phenomenon, but it has waited patiently for me. What a fine book! Not fancy except in its panorama, not sophisticated except in its characters, not exotic except in its elevation of the cliched American West. I recall shunning Larry McMurtry because he was too popular. Ah, youth. I can't imagine writing a novel this profound and this popular, this accessible. Every character grows over time, and eventually shows even a sliver of humanity or fatefulness that allows the reader to empathize with them (except, perhaps, Blue Duck, the murderous, rapacious soulless Indian outlaw, who kills everything in his past).

About halfway through the book I started sensing there was something beyond cowboy camraderies to Call and Gus' relationship: it is essentially a chaste gay marriage that they call the Lonesome Dove Ranch.

The TV mini-series is wonderful, too. Producation values are a little tacky, a little late-80s, but what are you going to do with on a mini-series budget? Robert Duval absolutely nails Gus, and Tommy Lee Jones is excellent as the stony, silent Call. Ricky Schroeder (!) is impressive as the young boy Newt.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

California Sorrow by Mary Kinzie, Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid by Simon Armitage

In California Sorrow, Mary Kinzie writes in free verse, and not just any old free verse, but open field, fragmented, white-spacey free verse. I like her 2007 book a great deal, find it oddly confessional ("First Passion" and "Privilege," for example) and plainspoken in places, from this sternest, most latinate and eytmologically-gravest poet. The marvelous prose poem, "The Poems I Am Not Writing," is a John Koethe-like discursion on the process and prayer of writing poetry, training oneself to write away from the center, to allow the poem to show itself despite your best efforts to cloud the issue with your conscious effort and ideas. She comes up with the phrase "windless bony dusk" in one of the prose sections, and then attacks it:
"'Windless, bony dusk' is rather good, but in prose it is just too pleased with itself. A poem I am not writing yet might chasten it."

Monday, June 01, 2009

A History of Cereal and Violence

Behind the times, as usual: just saw the sort-of gripping movie A History of Violence, which actually feels like a graphic novel without resorting to any animation whatsoever. Over the years, I'd seen the preview so often -- the loaded momentary truthfulness of Viggo Mortenstern's innocent life, the heavy foreshadowing (Ed Harris' scarred face and destroyed eye) that maybe old Viggo weren't so nice -- that I felt like I'd already seen the movie. Still, it's not far from being a pretty good movie -- how faintly can I praise it? Certainly, the sex scene with Maria Bello on the stairs (the two people I mentioned the movie to immediately referenced that), not to mention the 69 scene with her in a cheerleader outfit, are outstanding, and easily made the movie half its money. But what about the cereal box in several intimate breakfast scenes? I'm talking, of course, about Honey Bunches of Oats.
Why is Honey Bunches of Oats featured in at least two breakfast scenes? I can't think of a gentler cereal, it's almost Shakespearean in its sweetness:

Nay, though thou would run with me,
run down through thorn-scored hayricks in the crick,

shall I roll with thee in pearled honey bunches of oats.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

John Adams and George III

I am no student of history. Rather, I am a lousy student of history, allowing the neat HBO John Adams series to drive me to the David McCullough book itself. And it might just have been Paul Giamatti's swell performance that made it so compelling, but I found particularly moving the moment when Adams goes to England after England has capitulated and surrendered and signed a treaty with the new United States. Adams must face the King in proper form and with due respect, and declare the United States' intention to become, if not at once, eventual fast friends with England.

Again, my poor historicism shows: I can't tell from the book whether Adams' remarks to the King are written down in the first place, and then recited to the King, or whether he just wings it in his audience, then later reconstructs the text in peace. Ditto with the King's words. But it's moving -- on both ends -- the words these two countries seemed to share in order to heal wounds and begin a reconciliation, the kind of moment that often must go forgotten in the forward rush of progress and time and rapid change.

First, John Adams to the King:
"The United States have appointed me their minister plenipotentiary to Your Majesty. The appointment of a minister from the United States to Your Majesty's Court will form an epoch in the history of England and of America. I think myself more fortunate than all my fellow-citizens, in having the distinguished honor to be the first to stand in your Majesty's royal presence in a diplomatic character; and I shall esteem my self the happiest of men if I can be instrumental in recommending my country more an dmore to your Majesty's royal benevolence, and of restoring an entire esteem, confidence, and affection, or, in better words, the old good nature and the old good humor between people who, though separated by an ocean and under different governments, have the same language, a similiar religion, and kindred blood. I beg your Majesty's permission to add hat although I have some time before been intrusted by my country, it was never in my whole life in a manner so agreeable to myself."
Then Adams, who had been closely watching the King as he spoke, noticed the King "was much affected, and answered me with more tremor than I had spoken with":
The circumstances of this audience are so extraordinary, the language you have now held is so extremely proper, and the feeling you have discovered so justly adapted to the occasion, that I must say that I not only receive with pleasure the assurance of the friendly dispositions of the United States, but that I am very glad that the choice has fallen upon you to be their minister. I wish you, sir, to believe, and that it be understood in America, that I have done nothing in the late contest but what I thought I owed to my people. I will be very frank with you, I was the last to consent to separation; but the separation having been made, and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

LOST it is

LOST has become ludicrous. I was with the bs of the smoke monster, the bs of the hatch, even the bs of the "udders" (as Jin calls The Others). But ya lost me with all the time travelling.

Why? Time travel has a way of snuffing out of the force of narrative. It makes a wimpy, whimsical thing out of causality, the "necessary relationship of one thing (cause) to another (effect)," and so on. It makes a racehorse plot into a silly flying horse: sure it looks cool, but it's hard to believe.

The actors look exhausted from the strain of so much explaining, too, as if they were also reading the crawl along the bottom of the screen of some episodes, where back-story is given "for those just tuning in." Right. Explain explain explain. Jack has lost all of his authority to Sawyer, who now runs the show. Sawyer looks exhausted by the sublime effort of making love to Juliet. Ben continues to be beat up by just about everybody in the cast, his face is always mangled, but no one has the good sense to kill him and end our misery. Hurley can't lose weight no matter how far back in time he goes. Kate looks continually peeved and sunburnt. I could go one, but why bother? This guy's got the whole annoying thing covered.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Frail Nightmares of the Observer

An extraordinary late poem by Bishop. Free verse, the first person plural narrator turning into a first person narrator, the beach setting, the minute and stunning description ("the color of mutton-fat jade"), the self-correcting, polite diction, the fleeting surreality (the lion sun who batted the kite from the sky):
The End Of March by Elizabeth Bishop

For John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read: Duxbury

It was cold and windy, scarcely the day
to take a walk on that long beach
Everything was withdrawn as far as possible,
indrawn: the tide far out, the ocean shrunken,
seabirds in ones or twos.
The rackety, icy, offshore wind
numbed our faces on one side;
disrupted the formation
of a lone flight of Canada geese;
and blew back the low, inaudible rollers
in upright, steely mist.

The sky was darker than the water
--it was the color of mutton-fat jade.
Along the wet sand, in rubber boots, we followed
a track of big dog-prints (so big
they were more like lion-prints). Then we came on
lengths and lengths, endless, of wet white string,
looping up to the tide-line, down to the water,
over and over. Finally, they did end:
a thick white snarl, man-size, awash,
rising on every wave, a sodden ghost,
falling back, sodden, giving up the ghost...
A kite string?--But no kite.

I wanted to get as far as my proto-dream-house,
my crypto-dream-house, that crooked box
set up on pilings, shingled green,
a sort of artichoke of a house, but greener
(boiled with bicarbonate of soda?),
protected from spring tides by a palisade
of--are they railroad ties?
(Many things about this place are dubious.)
I'd like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.
At night, a grog a l'américaine.
I'd blaze it with a kitchen match
and lovely diaphanous blue flame
would waver, doubled in the window.
There must be a stove; there is a chimney,
askew, but braced with wires,
and electricity, possibly
--at least, at the back another wire
limply leashes the whole affair
to something off behind the dunes.
A light to read by--perfect! But--impossible.
And that day the wind was much too cold
even to get that far,
and of course the house was boarded up.

On the way back our faces froze on the other side.
The sun came out for just a minute.
For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand,
the drab, damp, scattered stones
were multi-colored,
and all those high enough threw out long shadows,
individual shadows, then pulled them in again.
They could have been teasing the lion sun,
except that now he was behind them
--a sun who'd walked the beach the last low tide,
making those big, majestic paw-prints,
who perhaps had batted a kite out of the sky to play with.
Jerome Mazzaro, in his review of Bishop's premature Complete Poems in 1968, remarks on the "isolation" of each of her poems:
"This sense of boundaries... militates against any cumulative effects and keeps her works discrete ... Miss Bishop does not want to create an imagined cosmos to compete with the real world. She wants her readers to return to life, not to escape into some cozy, romantic archipelago which she can create either in Maine or Brazil."
David Kalstone wrote about Bishop for the first time in Partisan Review after the publication of Complete Poems, in an pioneering essay in the history of Bishop scholarship called "All Eye":
"It should be clear that when Miss Bishop writes about nature, about objects, about experiences, it is with a very strong sense of their intractability and challenge. Nature cannot easily be combed for moral emblems. Her poems, every bit as conservative in form as other poems of the forties and fifties, are much stranger than what in those decades we took to be poetry. What the sixties have left behind is a notion, a false reading perhaps encouraged by Eliot's criticism, of the perfect "metaphysical" poem, one in which an observed object or action can be taken securely as an "objective correlative" for inner experience ... Going back to Miss Bishop's poems, one finds it all there without any fuss: the most precise psychological connections made between the needs of exact observation and the frail nightmares of the observer, between the strangeness of what is seen and the strangeness of the person seeing it."
Both of the above are taken as excerpts from Brett C. Miller's biography, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Also learned from that biography that Bishop attended a wedding for the first time in her life at age 62.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

It's Useless to Bawl

Saw the reconstituted (3 years plus, at this point), with the reinstalled Shane MacGowan at the helm, looking (to paraphrase the Washington Post) approximately three times his age (which is around 52). He also resembles my grandmother. At least he got rid of his own teeth completely. The band is as tight as my father used to be by the time All in the Family came on in the evenings: I mean, they're tight as anything I've ever seen. Shane is incomprehensible, as always, not that matters. For it seems everyone in the sold-out place knew his lyrics as well as he did, so one only had to cock an ear any which way except toward the stage, and there it was, as foul and evocative and brilliant as it ever was. As below (so above -- too bad I had to reach back to 1988 to find it), one of my favorites, a lyric that chokes me up every time I hear it. And now my son likes it too! A rare moment of confluence.

The Broad Majestic Shannon (Shane MacGowan)

The last time I saw you was down at the Greeks
There was whiskey on Sunday and tears on our cheeks
You sang me a song as pure as the breeze
Blowing up the road to Glenaveigh
I sat for a while at the cross at Finnoe
Where young lovers would meet when the flowers were in bloom
Heard the men coming home from the fair at Shinrone
Their hearts in Tipperary wherever they go

Take my hand, and dry your tears babe
Take my hand, forget your fears babe
There's no pain, there's no more sorrow
They're all gone, gone in the years babe

I sat for a while by the gap in the wall
Found a rusty tin can and an old hurley ball
Heard the cards being dealt, and the rosary called
And a fiddle playing Sean Dun na nGall
And the next time I see you we'll be down at the Greeks
There'll be whiskey on Sunday and tears on our cheeks
For it's stupid to laugh and it's useless to bawl
About a rusty tin can and an old hurley ball

So I walked as day was dawning
Where small birds sang and leaves were falling
Where we once watched the row boats landing
By the broad majestic Shannon

Friday, March 20, 2009

Things On Which I've Stumbled by Peter Cole; All-American Poems by Matthew Dickman

Peter Cole, Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (New Directions, 2008) (Buy it)
Matthew Dickman, All-American Poem (The American Poetry Review, 2008) (Buy it)

(originally published in Poet Lore Magazine)

Peter Cole (who describes himself as “a modern poet of a medieval kind”) wonders whether meaning can be made – whether one language translates into another – whether sacred ancient mysteries can transcend their own time – in his title poem, “Things on Which I’ve Stumbled.” But in the very opening poem of the volume, “Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind,” a translation of and extension upon a verse by a 13th century kabbalist, Cole posits his own solution:

Only by sucking, not by knowing,
can the subtle essence by conveyed—
sap of the world and the word’s flowing

that raises the scent of the almond blossoming,
and yellows the bulbul in the olive’s jade.
Only by sucking, not by knowing.

Sucking, a quasi-devotional, not unerotic physical act, absolutely required of the human species, replaces knowledge as the way to take in the world. Cole also uses the villanelle’s call-and-response form to prop up his “winches of syntax and sense,” and to navigate Sappho-like fragments strung together with their more recent, but still ancient, commentary, and his own contemporary skepticism and imaginative improvisations. But he is always wary of translation’s claims on meaning: “Bad translation/is like drawing a bucket from a moonlit/well – and losing the silvery shine on its surface.”

The flow of the fragments, the ancient commentary, the messages scribbled around them, and Coles’ present-day musings, make his poems urgent communications from all time, and at the same, in his voiced poems, cries of anguish and despair over the difficulty of meaning, the ambiguous transport of language, the central unknowingness of god. I was reminded of Gary Snyder’s “Rivers and Mountains Without End,” his long poem about the ancient Japanese prints and scrolls that have comments scribbled on them across the centuries, commentary that becomes part of the text as the original context is forgotten. The poem is not set in stone. It is a time capsule, and a chalkboard – an opportunity for dialogue and commentary.

that beauty carried covers
more than just a flaw
or seam in being
that lets us see
what’s real,
but is itself a means
of conducting things concealed
that can’t, by nature, be revealed
(“Things on Which I’ve Stumbled”)

Besides the villanelle, Cole is confident in any number of stanza forms –
pantoums, ghazals, sestinas, as well as free verse. “Notes on Bewilderment” also concerns translation, and in fifty 5-line stanzas (abcda) it covers a dizzying array of subjects springing from translation, a full-scale inquiry on the range of human myth- and meaning-making: → love → God → politics (Palestinian) → art (Rothko) → philosophy → ethics → myth. Here he is on Love:


He wanted to know how love was rewarded:
true Love. That’s easy, the lover replied,
the prize for that great desire comprises
the absence of any distinction between
the pain and pleasure one is accorded.

and again on translation:


It isn’t done with tracing paper. Things
signaled by words charged in a row begin
to converge, just as hope a single one
or pair might be rendered fades. So we enter
the sacred order from which translation springs.

His “Palestine, A Sestina” uses its form to reinforce the politics of repetition and renaming and giving and taking and retaking of the same land, coexistence. And in a short, limerick-like lyric, “Israel is,” he makes a macabre sportive metonymy of the difference between the spiritual and the true flesh-and-blood Jew, the substitution of the part for the whole, the citizen who stands in for the nation:

Israel is he, or she, who wrestles
with God – call him what you will,

not some goon (with a rabbi and a gun)
in a pre-fab home on a biblical hill

In part IV of the volume, Cole springs some free verse where lyrics and paragraph prose poems are interwoven, as the poet again questions commentators and scripture as a translation of one mystical poem into another. In some cases, the prose poems seems to be rhyming, as if they had once been in lyric, stanza form but had been stripped of line-break and lined up inside the paragraph’s box, another form of translation , perhaps, to look at lyrics disconnected and stripped of form, to feel their strangeness that way. The lyrics are more stately, more of the same: broken lines, part ancient commentary, part speaker sussing out what was meant then and what is meant now, about biblical imperatives for Israel and a chosen people and, at the same time, scriptural reverence for the moral and ethical equality of all humans. The prose paragraphs can be downright bizarre, but no less sense-bearing:

Making the empty desert bloom. Virgin soil. Although we
need just a little more room. All that oil; all those countries.
A narrow waist was once its pride. Now it’s wide and the
world’s against it. Nothing upsets it. Not apartheid in its
midst, not its lies, not the fence. Cutting the land like a local
Christo. It takes a village. Along the ridge. From whence,
says Scripture, cometh my help. Slowly but surely…

Peter Cole interrogates Jewish history by rewriting its literary sources, insinuating himself into the ancient texts as yet another in a long line of arguments. His irreverent, playful verbal games seem a devotional strategy: he wants to believe, wants to worship, wants to count himself among the faithful, a fervent link in the long tradition, but his rationalism and modern psychological grounding compel him to widen already gaping holes in the tattered, incomplete skeins of ancient learning and scripture.

Matthew Dickson, on the other hand, is into current texts. Whatever smelting of contemporary culture and mores drifts across his brain-pan is ripe for frying, fair game in the game of chance that makes Dickman’s meanings.

From “The Mysterious Human Heart,” the opening salvo in Dickman’s volume All-American Poem, where he resembles (among others) Walt Whitman: equal parts delight and hearty appetite and a serious intention to get it all in and still be hungry for more experience afterwards, all in the first person singular unceasing:

The produce in New York is really just produce, oranges
And cabbage, celery and beets, pomegranates
With their hundred seeds, carrots and honey,
Walnut and thirteen varieties of apples.

Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland, and pére Kenneth Koch also hover around the table. And of course Frank O’Hara, whose Lunchbox poems seem to serve as household ghosts for the volume, and one need look no farther than O’Hara’s poem “Today” for an echo:

Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all
the stuff they've always talked about

“Times Square looks like America throwing up on itself,” the speaker muses in the long title poem. Dickman is unafraid to sound positively like Alan Ginsburg Junior (who himself often sounded Whitman-esque):

Oh Mississippi, I worry about your boys.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, are you half empty?
Washington D.C., the sons of senators
are sleeping between flannel sheets.

It’s a tour of all fifty states, a jaunt through the history of the Civil War, an explanation of the American scene as set forth on Independence Day. Dickman lists and strolls and enumerates and builds rhythms the size of the wild wild west:

You can go from one civil war to another and still not be free

You can go from one state to another and pity will meet you at Grayhound Station.

You can go from one daughter to another
And eventually end up with your own.

As Dickman exclaims in the closing poem, “The Whole is Too Huge to Grasp,” “I like the world in all its incredible forms,” and what a list he compiles to prove it: his brother’s ashes, the sincerity of penguins, the mess we make of the roses,

And the psycho
Promise of there’s-always-tomorrow,
Of rent-to-own, the smell
Of carrots, the smell of gasoline, the mysteries
Of bread and wine, the sky
Of Montana with Laura beneath it…

Sometimes his comparisons are pure fun though– they don’t help a reader see or understand a thing, but one might just laugh out loud. Like this one:

your breasts were two drunken parents
coaching little league practice

There are some mis-shots sprinkled here and there, as one might expect in a poet who is so fond of metaphor and simile, often just the construction of metaphor or simile. Sometimes too many comparisons tend to distract from his meaning, which seems to be, “Isn’t metaphor liberating and fun?” He can work from the particular to the universal with dizzying speed and incessant good humor, stringing together metaphors and similes, but some are necessarily better than others, and he often builds his speaker’s case by quantity, if not always by the fineness and unity of sensation. A line like “the slow dance doesn’t care/It’s all kindness like children/Before they turn three” sounds better than it means, or in the poem “Love,” “I love you/The way my mouth loves teeth” also seems to be comparing for comparing’s sake.

Buried among the ecstatic reports of the quotidian (Dickman’s true singing, which fall from him in torrents) are confessional elements: the speaker’s brother darts in and out of many poems, as do lovers and friends. I was relieved when he turned more serious, and less ornate, as in the poem “Grief,” and delivers a quiet quick shudder of deliciously manipulated pain:

When grief come to you as a purple gorilla
you must count yourself lucky…

tonight she brings a pencil and a ream of paper,
tells me to write down
everyone I have ever known
and we separate them between the living and the dead
so she can pick each name at random.

She pulls another name, this time
from the dead
and turns to me in that way that parents do
so you feel embarrassed or ashamed of something.

Romantic? She says,
reading the name out loud, slowly
so I am aware of each syllable
wrapping around the bones like new muscle,
the sound of that person’s body
and how reckless it is,
how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other.

“V,” where the speaker sees a young girl with a tee-shirt that says “talk Nerd to me” is another strong confessional poem. The speaker ponders the girl’s possibly non-ironical reasons for wearing the shirt, and ends up feeling a connection to her,

and maybe this is not a giant leap into the science of compassion

but he flashes her the Star Trek Vulcan V sign anyway as he passes her.

Not quite so delicious a confessional is “Trouble” which follows “Grief,” and enumerates the suicide of more than 20 famous personages such as Marilyn Monroe and Ernest Hemingway. Every third or fourth suicide is followed with a short, plain, odd descriptive sentence:

you can look at the clouds or the trees
and they look nothing like clouds or trees or the sky or the ground.

I sometimes wonder about the inner life of polar bears.

I like
geese sound above a river. I like
the little soaps you find in hotel bathrooms because they’re beautiful.

If you
traveling, you should always bring a book to read, especially
on a train.

The last suicide is Larry Walters, who attached weather balloons to a lawn chair and flew three miles in the air, and twenty years later shot himself. After Walters’ suicide, the poem closes:

In the morning I get out of bed, I brush
my teeth, I was my face, I get dressed in the clothes I like best.
I want to be good to myself.

I don’t quite get the point here: suicide is to be survived? The ordinary will save us? Whatever the lesson is, Dickman’s affect comes off as underwhelming.

Still, all is forgiven Dickman in the end. His voice is fresh and funny and incessant: his poetic synapses fire like a string of caps, one after the other, and one gets the sense that those caps would still fire underwater if need be, his thinking is so explosive. Newest in the notable line of American surrealist poets, if he is no Bruce Smith or Dean Young, Dickman to his credit is much more accessible, an excellent example of delivering quality to the masses, less discontinuous, and often, as I’ve pointed out, laugh-out-loud funny. That’s a plus in the current doomy market.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

Das Truman Show. At a bit over two hours it's too long, that's for sure, there's an awful long soft middle to the film, which is where it tries hardest to become a German film, but then it's back to the hard wrap and American time again. After reading so many advance comments on the film (when it was still being post-produced), and then advance reviews, I thought I was fairly clear on the plot, and the whole constructing-a-small-scale-but-complete-model-0f-all-of-Manhattan, but the reviewers must have picked up all of that from the advance material distributed with the release, because if you didn't know that was coming, it would take you the soft middle -- about 75 minutes -- to figure it out, that the director (Hoffman) of the play was now directing not just his entire life, but all of existence. (Well, he goes abroad briefly to Germany, to try to see his lost child Olive, and that part at least, seems to be "off screen.") I can bitch and moan -- and will, if I find the time to go back and review it act by act, but it's a fairly extraordinary film nonetheless. There are some great performances (Hoffman, de rigeur it would seem at this point in his nearly faultless career), Samantha Morton, Emily Watson (small part but great) but then there are a million other actors who seem to be as confused as I was. The movie is about ideas, the movie is an idea, and although the vision is not seamlessly revealed to us, it's pretty powerfully delivered in part.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

My Vocabulary Did This to Me

"Book Of Music" by Jack Spicer

Coming at an end, the lovers
Are exhausted like two swimmers. Where
Did it end? There is no telling. No love is
Like an ocean with the dizzy procession of the waves' boundaries
From which two can emerge exhausted, nor long goodbye
Like death.
Coming at an end. Rather, I would say, like a length
Of coiled rope
Which does not disguise in the final twists of its lengths
Its endings.
But, you will say, we loved
And some parts of us loved
And the rest of us will remain
Two persons. Yes,
Poetry ends like a rope.

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