Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Faith by Jennifer Haigh

These questions will plague certain readers-- those raised, I suspect, in a different sort of family.  Evasion comes naturally to my tribe, this loose jumble of McGann, Devine and Breen.  Thre reasons for this are not so mysterious.  My father is a man of shameful habits.  My mother is lace-curtain Irish.  She will settle for correctness, or the appearance of it; but in her heart she wants only to be good.  The space between them is criss-crossed with silent bridges, built of half-truths and suppressions.  The chasm beneath is deep and wide.

Those same bridges exist across generations:  my mother and her parents, my father and his.  On both sides, we are a family of open secrets.  When I was a child they enclosed my innocence like a tourniquet.  Without knowing quite how I knew it, I understood what might be said, and what must be kept quiet.  If from the outside the rules appeared arbitrary, from the inside they were perfectly clear.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Son by Philipp Meyer

Remarkable.  One Hundred Years of Solitude meets Cormac McCarthy meets Lonesome Dove.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Submission by Amy Waldman

A great premise -- a blind-juried competition for a memorial for the WTC attacks is won by an American Muslim architect -- grows preachy and long-winded in the execution.  Waldman's didactism is overwhelming -- a dozen characters all start to sound alike as she uses them to educate the reader about the subtleties of the rhetorical conflict between the forces of imagination, religious faith, freedom, patriotism and political power.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Blake: A Biography by Peter Ackroyd

I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body & mind to exercise the Divine Arts of the Imagination. 

The human body is vapour materialized by sunshine mixed with the life of the stars.  Paracelsus

Man must be at war with himself if he wishes to be a heavenly citizen... fighting must be the watchword, not with tongue and sword, but with mind and spirit, and not to give over.  Boehme

[Blake] might not have wanted to come too close to himself, in case he did not care for what he found there.  He may have recognized that the sources of his greatness lay in sufferings long forgotten or in childhood fears long buried.  Blake: A Biography, Peter Ackroyd

The stern Bard ceas'd, asham'd of his own song; enrag'd he swung
His harp aloft sounding, then dash'd its shining frame against
A ruin'd pillar in glittring fragments; silent he turn'd away,
And wander'd down among the vales of Kent in sick & drear lamentings

Blake, America (draft)

As Unity is the cloke of folly so Goodness is the cloke of knavery Those who will have Unity exclusively in Homer come out with a Moral like a sting in the tail: Aristotle says Characters are either Good or Bad: now Goodness or Badness has nothing to do with Character. an Apple tree a Pear tree a Horse a Lion, are Characters but a Good Apple tree or a Bad, is an Apple tree still: a Horse is not more a Lion for being a Bad Horse. that is its Character; its Goodness or Badness is another consideration.

Nature has no Outline, but Imagination has. Nature has no Tune, but Imagination has! Nature has no Supernatural & dissolves: Imagination is Eternity!

... the joys of God advance
For he is Righteous: he is not a Being of Pity & Compassion     
He cannot feel Distress: he feeds on Sacrifice & Offering:    
Delighting in cries & tears & clothed in Holiness & solitude    
But my griefs advance also, for ever & ever without end    
O that I could cease to be! Despair! I am Despair
Created to be the great example of horror & agony: also my    
Prayer is vain I called for compassion: compassion mockd    
Mercy & pity threw the grave stone over me & with lead    
And iron, bound it over me for ever: Life lives on my    
Consuming: & the Almighty hath made me his Contrary    
To be all evil, all reversed & for ever dead: knowing    
And seeing life, yet living not; how can I then behold    
And not tremble; how can I be beheld & not abhorrd     

from "Jerusalem":

". . . He soon became accustomed to the smell of nut oil, varnish and lamp black from Germany as well as to the ink smeared across his hands and his face. For the next seven years--indeed for the rest of his life--he was surrounded by iron pots for the boiling of the oil, pans forwarming the copper plates, tallow candles, racks of needles and gravers, fine linen cloths to strain in the plates, old rags for wiping the ink off the plates, pumice stones to polish the plates, feathers for smoothing the ground of varnish on the plates. Stacked around him were the sheets of fine paper, as well as the plates themselves, which were the thickness of a half-crown; there was the small leather cushion filled with sand, upon which he rested the plate while engraving, and the square wooden press with its tables, rollers and woolen cloths. It was a dirty and malodorous workplace but it was one against which he never felt the slightest revulsion."

Friday, August 09, 2013

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

As compelling as I found Wolitzer's The Wife several weeks ago, I thought this was weak, trumped up stuff.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life by Adam Feinstein

It was so beautiful to live
when you were alive!

(from "Final" by Pablo Neruda, from El mar y las campanas)

In an intensely circuitous month of sustained reading and study and recitation, I have plunged into the poems of Pablo Neruda.

The route was accidental: a student brought in an old videotape of Il Postino for the continuing education/humanities Literature class I was teaching to watch.  I remember really liking it the first time I saw it, when it came out, but barely remembered the Neruda poems featured, except that they were almost exclusively love poems and there was a gorgeous young Italian woman that the mailman woos, and wins, using Neruda as an inspiration and a source.

Always impressionable, I re-read 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair. then read Feinstein's workmanlike biography, which has some good stuff like this:  Soon after Neruda's death, Francisco Velasco found an eagle trapped in his Santiago house, in the room where Neruda always stayed. Velasco recalls Neruda once telling him, that, 'if there was another life, he would like to be an eagle.'

In short order, I dug out my old copy of Neruda and Vallejo (translated by Robert Bly, from The Seventies Press), a copy of Neruda's Political Poetry, checked out from the library the Stephen Mitchell translations (Fleshly Apple etc.) and the massive selected poems "The Poetry of Pablo Neruda" (edited by Ilan Stavan). 

Am now drowning in Neruda, as is easy to do.  His first collection (20 Love Poems...) came out when he was barely twenty and made him a celebrity in Chile.  He wrote over 2000 poems over fifty years, and eventually became internationally famous as a poet.  Workers, peasants, the poor, and everyone else, it seemed, in South America, Mexico, Russia, China, the Far East and Europe, stopped Neruda on the street and recited their favorite poem of his, often in tears.

His was a passionate, first-person writing.  "I am not a contemplative," he once said, comparing himself to Mallarme, who was an early influence but, Neruda maintained, wrote "closed room poems."  Neruda progressed from love poems (20 poems) to tormented poems in exile (the first two Recidencia collections) to the political poetry of the Canto General in support of working people and the poor all over the world (an unashamed Communist from age 25 onwards, he completely ignored Stalin's monstrosities until many years after the murderous facts had become universally accepted), to the monumental Elemental Odes, a return to writing more simply about nature and love.

Boris Pasternak to Yevtushenko:  "I didn't intend to lead anyone anywhere.  I think a poet is a tree -- it stands still and rustles its leaves."

On September 15, 1970, President Nixon instructed CIA Director Richard Helms to prevent Allende taking power in Chile by lending assistance to a military coup.  Neruda wrote a blistering poem,“A call for the destruction of Nixon and praise for Chilean revolution” (in Spanish, “IncitaciĆ³n al nixonicidio y alabanza de la revoluciĆ³n chilena”):

Because I love my country
I claim you, essential brother,
Old Walt Whitman with your gray hands.
So that, with your special help
Line by line, we will tear out the roots
And destroy the bloodthirsty President Nixon.

There can be no happy man on earth,
No one can work well on this planet
While that nose continues to breathe in Washington.
Asking the old bard to confer with me
I assume the duties of a poet
Armed with a terrorist’s sonnet

Because I must carry out with no regrets
This sentence, never before witnessed,
Of shooting a criminal under siege,
Who in spite of his trips to the moon
Has killed so many here on earth
That the paper flies up and the pen is unsheathed
To set down the name of this villain

Who practices genocide from the White House.

There's lots of dross -- how couldn't there be in 2,500 poems? -- but there's a consistent, heady, charismatic first-person speaker in many of the poems who celebrates the abundance and goodness and mystery of the natural world in gorgeous close detail and ear-snapping juxtaposition and connection.

And that's just in English! For the first time in my life, I've forced myself to slowly, haltingly read the original Spanish verse ("remember that the real poem is on the other side of the page," Neruda once chided his legions of translators and, by extension, his millions of readers).  Jorge Edwards said of Neruda's years in self-imposed 'exile' in the Orient: "Actually, his Spanish became quite odd.  It was very much influenced by solitude.  He heard chiefly English, as spoken in the English colonies, and his use of verbs is not altogether Chilean or Spanish.  It was something new..."

A young Hispanic woman in my humanities class read "Ode to My Suit" in the original Spanish from the Elemental Odes in our final class, and I almost wept at the liquid abundance of her pronunciation.  I asked her what it was like to read it out loud in Spanish.  "The words are common," she said.  "I know most of them already -- but have never seen them altogether like this!"  She perfectly defined great poetry.

Ode To Wine

Day-colored wine,
night-colored wine,
wine with purple feet
or wine with topaz blood,
starry child
of earth,
wine, smooth
as a golden sword,
as lascivious velvet,
wine, spiral-seashelled
and full of wonder,
never has one goblet contained you,
one song, one man,
you are choral, gregarious,
at the least, you must be shared.
At times
you feed on mortal
your wave carries us
from tomb to tomb,
stonecutter of icy sepulchers,
and we weep
transitory tears;
spring dress
is different,
blood rises through the shoots,
wind incites the day,
nothing is left
of your immutable soul.
stirs the spring, happiness
bursts through the earth like a plant,
walls crumble,
and rocky cliffs,
chasms close,
as song is born.
A jug of wine, and thou beside me
in the wilderness,
sang the ancient poet.
Let the wine pitcher
add to the kiss of love its own.

My darling, suddenly
the line of your hip
becomes the brimming curve
of the wine goblet,
your breast is the grape cluster,
your nipples are the grapes,
the gleam of spirits lights your hair,
and your navel is a chaste seal
stamped on the vessel of your belly,
your love an inexhaustible
cascade of wine,
light that illuminates my senses,
the earthly splendor of life.

But you are more than love,
the fiery kiss,
the heat of fire,
more than the wine of life;
you are
the community of man,
chorus of discipline,
abundance of flowers.
I like on the table,
when we're speaking,
the light of a bottle
of intelligent wine.
Drink it,
and remember in every
drop of gold,
in every topaz glass,
in every purple ladle,
that autumn labored
to fill the vessel with wine;
and in the ritual of his office,
let the simple man remember
to think of the soil and of his duty,
to propagate the canticle of the wine. 

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