Saturday, August 30, 2008

Paul Muldoon's "The End of the Poem"

These essays are based on the lectures Muldoon gave as Oxford Professor of Poetry. In each essay, he analyzed a single poem, mainly in terms of its diction and imagery, in order to show the poem's associations with other poems and writing by and about the same author, and with the poem's poetic forebears. 

I find many of the associations made, in this approach which Muldoon named stunt-reading, persuasive and insightful, though other links seem more tenuous. These less convincing links are usually based on the repetition of very common words. The links may be tenuous but they cannot be disproved, for we know that the poetic imagination works in mysterious associative ways. If Muldoon ends up by making every poet sound like him, perhaps that is partly due to the same imagination at work in writing poetry. Muldoon believes that the poem wants to write itself through the poet.

A believer also in Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence, Muldoon is attuned to the various ways a poem misreads its strong forebear, a misreading at its most hostile in Ted Hughes's attack on Marianne Moore in his poem "The Literary Life." This poetic misreading is often mirrored in a conflicted relationship between the poet and his or her real-life parent, or, in the case of H.D., between the poet and Freud, her analyst. One of the Muldoon's achievements in these essays is to show how many forms that conflict can take. 

The first essay looks at "All Souls' Night" by W. B. Yeats, and the last essay looks at three poems, all by Irish poets, Robert Graves, C. Day Lewis and Seamus Heaney. I would not immediately think of the first two as Irish. By opening and closing his lectures series, in Oxford, with Irish bards, Muldoon makes the point that "The English language belongs to us." The quotation comes from Heaney's "The Station Island," a message Heaney puts in the mouth of a tutelary James Joyce. 

Between the Irish cover, Muldoon looks at poems by 4 English poets, 6 Americans, and 3 Europeans. No Scot, or Welsh bards, except, in passing, Robert Burns. If Frost looks to Wordsworth, Muldoon emphasizes Ted Hughes's debt to Marianne Moore, and Heaney's debt to Robert Lowell. The twentieth century, from the perspective of these lectures, belonged to the Americans, not only in the political sphere, but also in that of poetry. 

Friday, August 29, 2008

My new blog about my forthcoming book

I am celebrating the inking of my book contract by starting a new blog about the forthcoming book, Equal to the Earth. The book of poems will be published in April 2009, by Poets Wear Prada, the same press that put out Payday Loans. I am going to try to keep the new blog very focused, in contrast with this one, which is more like a big scrap book. The new blog will provide updates on Equal to the Earth, and also thoughts and ideas on publication. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Exiles, Manicules, New Bibles, Rajput Landscape, Distracted Theory, Things

TLS August 22 & 29 2008

from Clive James's review of Joseph Horowitz's Artists in Exile: How refugees from twentieth century war and revolution transformed the American performing arts:

Not even the basket cases could honestly say that they had fallen among Philistines. They had fallen into a larger competitive market than the one that they had been driven out of, and even if they failed in it they would have liked to succeed.

*

Some of them felt limited by the indifference of the audience to anything labelled as art, but there was always a minority audience for that. There was a minority audience even for Schoenberg. On a world scale, Schoenberg's audience . . . is still a minority today, but most of the minority is in America, where minorities are larger.

*

European and American culture have always been a two-way interchange and to talk about either of them exclusively is like trying to cut water with a knife. Joseph Horowitz says that Stokowski's dream of a democratic high culture never arrived. But it couldn't, because such a thing, as an aim, can exist only in theory. In practice, a successful artistic event deals with the anomaly by removing it.

***

from Adam Smyth's review of William H. Sherman's Used Books: Marking readers in Renaissance England:

The most common addition was the small, pointing hand that marked out a line: a figure which, despite its prevalence, has no standard name. Sherman suggests "manicule" (from maniculum, "a little hand") and provides an absorbing history of four centuries of this diminutive form. Manicules sketched by Petrarch have long index fingers with shaded nails; Boccaccio's curl at the edge into flowers; Archbishop Parker's are chunky; John Dee's wear little cuffs.

*

Sir Julius Caesar's massive 1,200-page commonplace book--a digest of six decades of reading by one of England's leading lawyers--illustrates an early modern interest in discontinuous reading, and the removal and subsequent redeployment of fragments. Caesar plucked information from books and distributed it under thematic headings ("Ambassadors", "Bastards", "Parasites", "Perversity", "Shipwrecks", "Tears") to create a powerful research tool that, Sherman suggests, "anticipated the kind of indexed archive now being delivered . . . by Google."

***

from Karl Orend's review of books on Henry Miller:

While writing Tropic of Cancer, Miller followed Walt Whitman's injunction to write new Bibles for our times. In J'Suis pas plus con qu'un autre, Miller revealed that he saw Whitman as a Hindu writer. He regarded his own work in similar terms. When helping plan a defence of Cancer, thinking back to one of his most important influences, Proust and his cathedral-book, A la Recherche du temps perdu, Miller likened his own novel to the erotically charged cave temples of India.

*

He aimed to explore "potential being" from multiples perspectives . . . . Miller detested linear narrative, and sought, like Proust and Joyce, to replace linear with spiral.

*

Miller, who regarded the great religious leaders and writers he admired as social revolutionaries, claimed that by the time he came to draft Tropic of Cancer (1931-4), he had become "an American Siddhartha". He knew that time was not linear, but spiral. Everything was perpetual movement and change. one could only go forward by "going backward, then sideways, and then up and down". This is the ket behind the symbolic use of Cancer, the crab--who moves in all directions with equal ease.

***

from Tash Aw's review of "The Ramayana" exhibition at Person Gallery, British Library:

Commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh towards the end of his reign in the mid-seventeenth century, the 400 paintings that form the Ramayana manuscript represent the flowering of the Mewar tradition of Rajput painting and count as some of the finest achievements in Indian art of the time. The scale of the project allowed its painters to render every episode of the epic work in fine detail, illustrating the manuscript to match the written narrative on each page. Four hundred paintings may seem plenty, but the Ramayana spans even books consisting of 24,000 verses--enough to cause anxiety in even the most dedicated of artists, particularly given the size of each folio (a mere 38 cm wide and 21 cm high). The reason for the near-manic amount of detail in some paintings becomes clear: it was simply a question of need. More intriguing, however, is the composition, the way in which this detail is handled.

*

Once again, there is hardly any landscape to speak of. A few ripples of water figure at the bottom left-hand corner, as does a faint line of sky that runs along the top of the picture. There is no space into which the viewer's eye can be drawn, nothing that allows for repose or perspective. Landscape, that great badge of naturalism, has but a tiny part to play in these paintings: it is the instrument of the characters, and of the events that unfold, and so confined to the margins. Even when it does figure prominently, it is a mere tool of the characters who dominate the story. When Hanuman, the great monkey general, breaks off the peak of a mountain to cure the wounded Rama, her performs a purely physical feat: he does not stop to admire the beauty of the Himalayas. They introduce no pathetic fallacy. What we are called on to engage with is the story itself, the characters and what they do. The universe in these paintings is called into existence by people--by beings, both divine and human--who act.

***

from Nicholas Royle's review of Jacques Derrida's Psyche: Inventions of the other, and Joanna Hodge's Derrida on Time:

Thinking about turning starts with the "disconcerting logic" of narcissism, reflecting on the ways in which the "I" is never truly at home in the world, never at one with itself. The title-word "Psyche" itself has multiple meanings, variously mobilized across these 760 or so pages, including the sense of a turning or swivelling mirror. Worldwide-ization entails thinking about where you are, in other words, the experience of a kind of "vertigo of place". That everything relates to everything else, that there is no saturation of context (another way of saying "nothing outside the text") is part of Derrida's "distracted theory".

*

[Derrida]: "deconstruction is inventive or it is nothing at all; it does not settle for methodical procedures, it opens up a passageway, it marches ahead and marks a trail."

*

Mourning likewise is not merely an experience some people are obliged to undergo for a limited period, but rather the condition of thinking and living with others. There is, in Hodge's words, "no common time of shared temporal durations". Instead, she suggests, "there is a collective experience of the lack of simultaneity experienced at an individual level, where friends necessarily outlive one another, installing as unavoidable a work of mourning for a lost commonality." Or as Derrida puts it in one of his aphorisms on Romeo and Juliet: "I love because the other is the other, because its time will never be mine".

At the heart of Hodge's project is the attempt to take account of that strange logic of differing and deferring that Derrida called differance, the ways in which things don't happen when they happen. The second can come before the first, mourning before death. . . . Accordingly, Hodge argues that "time is to be thought not as linear, but as curved, and that matter and its materiality are organised in accordance with asymmetrical relations arising from such curvature, rather than in accordance with a surmised line of continuous development from some notional beginning to some equally notional end point." Exploring motifs of delay and displacement in Derrida's work, Hodge gives particular and valuable attention to the figures and forces of swerve, interruption, syncopation, hesitation, the undecidable, the unforeseeable, and the time of a promise (such as the "democracy to come").

***

from Jeremy Butterfield's review of James Ladyman and Don Ross's Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics naturalized:

. . . they maintain that once we reject these views and think of objects correctly, as some sort of abstraction from a web of relations, we see that people, trees, or rocks--the objects of everyday life and the special sciences--are just as real as the arcane objects of physics: they are all abstractions from webs of relations. . . . Once we realize that objects are really patterns, each science becomes free to articulate and investigate its own ontology.

*

Ladyman and Ross disavow all versions of "reductive" physicalism, and even any special metaphysical primacy for physics. (They do accord an epistemological primacy . . . .) On the contrary: these sciences' autonomous and lush ontologies--albeit of real patterns, rather than objects as traditionally conceived--prompt them to call their view "Rainforest Realism".

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sally van Doren's "Sex at Noon Taxes"

These are poems about the female body, sex, and sexual politics. They try to be playful and deep, but I find most of them tiring and slight. All of them are written in fourteen lines, but only in a few instances--"Proposition," "Connecticut Sonnet," "Odalisque"--does the form find its justification in the content. The language is an uneasy mixture of registers: slangy, crude, academic, lyrical, archaic. Sometimes, unintentionally funny, as in the title poem, which opens the collection. Describing sex as a gallop up a mountain, the sestet goes:

The steeds bear us upslope.
We reach the muddy cleft
between Maroon Bells
and Crested Butte, gnawing
on caribou and warmed
liver of once noble elk.
.
Maroon Bells? Crested Butte? 

The poems are organized into four numbered sections. I find the second most wearying. The poems in it have titles like "Preposition" and "Pronoun/Punctuation." "Conjunctions" begins:

Furthermore, until but
dethrones however
while nevertheless pilots
since out of that's

atmosphere . . .

This is the kind of poem a bright middle-schooler, bored during a grammar lesson, might scribble on the back of a worksheet. At times, the wordplay, combined with a strong evocation of situation, is urgent and direct, as in the opening of "Breathe When I Expire":

the here is the why of summer this sentimental hole wedged
between Paris Provence and a labored wedding

removed from the when of death and rain the where of a scream and a white face
the how of the gash the blue bone and the fall into the pillow

but, much more often, the wordplay seems decorative, even obstructive. When the poet drops the mannerism, and writes with a plain honesty, her little scenes resonate beyond their chosen confines.

Girlhood

Alone in the basement
hiding naked behind
the washing machine,
I spied on my father
looking for his ironed
shirt, watched two
repairmen work on the
furnace and heard
another flush out the 
drains.
XXXXXGirl, soundless,
pinned between the hot-
water hookup and the
AC adaptor on an ever-
lasting winter morning.

Monday, August 25, 2008

[title of show]

I watched this musical about producing a musical at the Lyceum last night, the same theater where I watched Patrick Stewart's Macbeth. [title of show] was wittily self-referential: the trials and triumph of four struggling actors (nobodies in New York, as one song puts it, allliteratively) in bringing their show to The Great White Way. A lot of insider jokes, which I didn't get, but there was enough in the clever lyrics and winsome acting to enjoy. 

The actors played themselves. So Jeff Bowen, the composer and lyricist, was the introspective composer and lyricist Jeff in the show. Hunter Bell was the flamboyant writer. Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff completed the quartet of actors. The gay guys were amusing, camping it up, but the women were charismatic on stage. Blackwell had impeccable comic timing, and a dark interiority. Blickenstaff held us enthralled when she sang the nostalgic "A Way Back to Then." 

The characters would have been more sympathetic if they had been more developed. The plot flapped hard to rise above a series of comedy sketches. What I valued most were the glimpses of an actor's lot in New York. The obsession with knowing the right people. The procrastination--playing Atari, watching porn--to avoid doing creative work that will likely be rejected. The conflict between doing soul-sapping but rent-paying work (Understudy in The Little Mermaid, anyone?) and committing to a worthwhile project that may never get produced. The anti-climax that comes after a successful run on off-Broadway, when one asks, what's next? 

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Diebenkorn in New Mexico

This exhibition, at the Phillips Collection in D.C., concentrates on a formative period of Richard Diebenkorn's art: the three years, from 1950-52, he spent in Albuquerque as a student at the University of New Mexico. The exhibition is prefaced by figurative and abstract compositions of a more mature period, exhibited in the museum's lobby. Particularly interesting to me was the juxtaposition of his Interior with View of the Ocean and Matisse's Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, which Diebenkorn saw at the Phillips:



Interior with View of the Ocean, 1957



Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, 1916


Both paintings are interested in the interplay of interior and exterior spaces, in planes forming themselves into a corner, in the analogy between windows and paintings, in exposing and thinking about one's working process. The differences are striking too. Matisse is dedicated to the study of the human figure and its ground, whereas Diebenkorn decomposes the scene into its constituent triangles and rectangles, in a manner reminscent of Cezanne and his followers. Matisse is domestic and local: his window looks out into Paris and the Seine. Diebenkorn, on the other hand, looks out to the ocean and an unidentifable stretch of tarmac. Matisse's fabrics and decorative motifs lend warmth and wit to his painting, as opposed to the cold blue dominating Diebenkorn's painting. Even the yellow sunlight feels more clarifying than warm.

The other big figurative painting in the lobby is Diebenkorn's Girl with Plant.



Girl with Plant, 1960


The museum note relates this painting to Edward Hopper, with his solitary urban figures, but this work reminds me more of another Matisse, though I don't know if Diebenkorn has seen it: The Piano Lesson in MoMA.


The Piano Lesson. Issy-les-Moulineaux, late summer 1916.


Diebenkorn's painting flips over the Matisse. We see the back of the girl, instead of the front of the boy; the supervising adult is now, perhaps, the viewer. The window opening out to a lawn in Matisse becomes in Diebenkorn a door leading into a bedroom, the curlicues of the window grille straightening into blue lines on the wall. Matisse's somber grey and pink is changed into Diebenkorn's lemon yellow and electric blue. Most intriguingly, the piano is now a plant, the resented discipline of art is transformed into the dangerous life of nature.

I like the Albuquerque abstracts very much too, and found a lot to think over. The earliest ones are brightly colored and lively in their disposition of shapes, especially circles. Painted in his second year in New Mexico, Miller 22, in its use of animal and landscape forms, is grand, sensuous, and humorous:



Miller 22, 1951


A more exuberantly joyous painting is Albuquerque No. 4 (1951):




My favorite of the exhibition is more sober-toned. Albuquerque No. 7 (1951) sandwiches between its black and brown a pinkish-green translucent jewel:



The painting possesses, paradoxically, the force of compression, the width of land, and the height of mountains.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ian McEwan's "The Cement Garden"

This one has the feel of an archetype, with its attendant strengths and weaknesses for a novella. The domineering but insecure father. The loving but helpless mother. The capable oldest daughter who takes on the mothering when both parents die suddenly. The second-oldest son browbeaten by dad, lusting for the sister, masturbating constantly. The third child, another daughter, the studious and sensitive one. The youngest boy who likes dressing up as a girl, and holding hands with his male play-mate. The archetype gives the family drama a strong sense of inevitability but the predictability at the same time weakens the drama.

Part 1 begins with its promised end, the father's death coinciding with Jack's first wet climax. It is a beautiful demonstration of how a son comes of age by killing (indirectly) his father, but, despite its sure narrative and precise language, or, perhaps, because of them, it does not escape the feel of being a demonstration. Part 2 is messier, within the plotted confines of the tragedy. It covers the death of the mother, the children's formation of a self-protective "family" and the break-up of that unnatural "family" by an outsider, the boyfriend brought in by the oldest sister. The concealed, contained "cement garden" of the temporary respite from reality gives way to the realities of the outside world.

I think the reader is supposed to feel at least somewhat sorry that such a respite has to end, but that was not my feeling when I finished reading the book. The cement garden is not supposed to be an idyll, but it must possess some idyllic qualities for its ending to be mourned. The novel, however, refuses to idealize that temporary accommodation. The house gets into a mess. The children withdraw into themselves in hurt and anger. Everything is in such great need of being taken care of, that I felt relief when finally the cop cars arrive at the door.

Part of the problem lies in making Jack the point of view. He is so fragile, so egoistic, so needy, that the world seen through his eyes is necessarily limited. He is also not an easy character to empathize with. Pity, yes, but not immersion. Predictably, he gets what he wants in the end, the sister putting his penis in her, while they lie in bed together, but the satisfaction fulfills limited ends, much less climactic than a similar scene in John Irving (Is it in Hotel New Hampshire?) He still does not understand anything about himself, his siblings, and his dead parents. He is still all outside, the way we see all the characters in this family fable.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The New Yorker July 28 and Aug 4, 2008

from James Wood's review of Aleksandar Hemon's fiction:

[On "the portable provincialism of exile":] Jozef watches the CNN pictures of his besiged city, but, Hemon write, "he only watched the images to recognize the people in them."

*

Sometimes his English has the regenerative eccentricity of the immigrant's, restoring buried meanings to words like "vacuous" and "petrified." A sentence like this one stands at a slight angle to customary English usage: "I piled different sorts of blebby pierogi and a cup of limpid tea on my tray." "Blebby" is wonderful, but, perhaps more wonderful, how many native English speakers would ever describe tea as limpid? Occasionally, he flourishes a lyrically pedantic Nabokovian bloom, as with the "fenestral glasses" a character wears.

*

. . . he is a postmodernist who has been mugged by history. When he "lays bare the device" (an old Russian Formalist phrase for the technique of playful fictive self-consciousness), he opens a wound.

*

The fragility of the immigrant's status takes on a metaphysical cast in Hemon's work. One of the immigrant narrators of "Nowhere Man" has the feeling that "most of the things in this world would go on existing whether I lived or died. There was hole in the world, and I fit right into it; if I perished, the hole would just close, like a scar healing."

*

[In the novel "The Lazarus Project"] . . . Brik reflects cynically on identity and its center:

Everybody imagines that they have a center, the seat of their soul, if you believe in that kind of thing. I've asked around, and most of the people told me that the soul is somewhere in the abdominal area--a foot or so above the asshole. but even if the center is elsewhere in the body--the head, the throat, the heart--it is fixed there, it does not move around. When you move, the center moves with you, following your trajectory. You protect that center, your body is a sheath; and if your body is damaged, the center is exposed and weak. Moving through the crowd at the bus station in Chernivtsi, I realized that mu center had shifted--it used to be in my stomach, but now it was in my breast pocket, where I kept my American passport and a wad of cash. I pushed this bounty of American life through space; I was presently assembled around it and needed to protect it from the people around me.

*

In his earlier work, Hemon circled around "King Lear" and Shakespeare's great phrase "unaccommodated man," the naked human animal Lear finds on the heath. Physically and metaphysically unaccommodated, Brike even imagines the Biblical Lazarus as a kind of unaccommodated man--the emblem of all immigrants. When Lazarus was raised by jesus from the dead, Brik muses, did he remember being dead? Or did he just begin again? "Did he have to disremember his previous life and start from scratch, like an immigrant?"

***

William Dalrymple's Letter from India "Serving the Goddess":

Yellamma was the wife of the powerful rishi Jamadagni. The couple and their four sons lived in a simple wooden hermitage by the lake. Here the sage punished his body and performed great feats of austerity. After the birth of his fourth child, these included a vow of chastity. Every day, Yellamma served her husband, and fetched water from the river for her husband's rituals. She used a pot made of sand, and carried it home in the coils of a live snake.

One day, as Yellamma was fetching water, she saw a heavenly being, a gandharva making love to his consort by the banks of the river. It was many years since Yellamma had enjoyed the pleasures of love, and the sight attracted her. Watching from behind a rock, and hearing the lovers' cries of pleasure, she found herself longing to take the place of the beloved.

This sudden rush of desire destroyed her composure. When she crept away to get water for her husband, she found, to her horror, that she could noy longer create a pot from sand, and that her yogic powers of concentration had vanished. When she returned home without the water, Jamadagni guessed what had happened, and in his rage he cursed his wife. According to Rani and Kaveri [devadasis, female devotees of the goddess], within seconds Yellamma had become sickly and ugly, covered with boils and festering sores. She was turned out of her home, cursed to wander the roads of the Deccan, begging for alms.

*

There is moreover, a body of explicitly sexual poetry from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in southern India in which the love of a devotee for the deity is sometimes envisaged as being akin to the love of a temple dancing girl for her client. Some of the most famous of these poems were discovered carved, in an early form of Telugu, on copper plates and kept in a locked room in the temple of Tirupati; it is only in the past decade that they have been translated into English, and included in the collection "When God Is a Customer." In most, the god is usually a form of Krishna; he is good-looking and desirable but a thoroughly unreliable lover who plays games that drive his devotees to despair. In other Telugu poems, however, the devadasi or courtesan sometimes dominates the relationship:

I'm not like the others
You may enter my house,
but only if you have the money.

If you don't have as much as I ask,
a little less would do.
But I'll not accept very little,
Lord Konkanesvara.

To step across the threshold
of my main door,
It'll cost you a hundred in gold.
For two hundred you can see my bedroom,
my bed of silk,
and climbed into it.

Only if you have the money

To sit by my side
and to put your hand
boldly into my sari:
that will cost ten thousand.

And seventy thousand
will get you a touch
of my full round breasts.

Only if you have the money

Three crores to bring
your mouth close to mine,
touch my lips and kiss.

To hug me tight,
to touch my place of love,
and get to total union,
listen well,
you must bathe me
in a shower of gold.

But only if you have the money

*

There is, however, an almost unimaginable gulf separating the devadasis of ancient poems and inscriptions and the lives lived by women like Rani Bai. In the Middle Ages, the devadasis were drawn from the grandest families in the realm--among them princesses of the Chola royal family--and possibily from slaves captured in war. Many were literate, and some were highly accomplished poets; indeed, at the time they seem to have been among the few literate women in the region. Today, the devadasis are drawn exclusively from the lowest castes--usually from the Dalit Madar caste--and are almost entirely illiterate.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Jason Irwin's "Watering the Dead"

I read some of these poems in Jason's chapbook Some Days It's a Love Story; in this full-length collection, which won Pavement Saw's Transcontinental Poetry Award, the poems reappear with even greater force, partly due to the larger narrative of which they now form a part. Watering the Dead accumulates power in its depiction of the stunted lives and thwarted dreams of small-town, blue-collared America, specifically, Dunkirk in upstate New York, a town which was, as one angry poem puts it, built and then abandoned by the railroad industry. 

Novelistic in its close observation of people and places, but unmistakably poetic in its arrangement of symbolic details, and its canny handling of the linebreak, the book has as its chief virtue a deep empathy for people who are suffering and cause suffering to others. The sufferers are family: divorced parents (the father is seen with more painful irony than the mother), a grandma with cancer, a grandpa who lost his house, uncles who wasted their lives in factory work. They are also friends and school-mates whom one gets to know, and not know, in a small town, to a peculiar extent. They kill themselves by driving to beat the train. They drink themselves to death in bars. They get locked-up. 

But there is nothing generic about them; the poems' glory is to bring them all to life: Joe Larivy who picked his nose through Spelling; Priscilla Kapiniski who showed her privates behind the rabbit cage; Joe Rancka who shared his Puerto Rican Rum; Todd Dopler who drove with the author on crazy road trips, and died in a high speed chase, in a stolen car; Frankie Lugo, the dutiful son, who was jailed for child molestation; Ed who finally got out in a rented truck; Walt Poland who stayed, and spat Morse Code onto the bar top; and Eric who thought we are all nothing but dirt, anyway.

To evade a constricted life, everyone dreams. The grown-ups dream of Cadillacs, the children dream of becoming Rocky Bilboa. An expansive future, that can only be found if one leaves home, is figured as "the most beautiful woman in the world." Those who don't leave home lust for consolation in glimpses of female breasts and ass. There are love poems in this book, but the creative impulse here is not lyrical, but elegaic and documentary. 

The impulse is also religious, and it issues in a desire to sanctify the place, and one's memories of the place, for the author does leave home. Spared from ordinary responsibilities and expectations by a childhood illness, the author is freed to write, but is compelled to write about what he has left behind. The last poem of the book is also one of its most powerful. In "Going Home," the speaker returns physically to Dunkirk. The poem moves from the Babe Ruth Field to the steel mill at which his grandfathers did time. Then it moves to the deserted downtown, into the convenient store where the same fat girl serves, then into Sara's Tavern where "the same faces drink the once local draft." Then it moves back in time to a year the speaker can hardly imagine, so promising it seems: 1851, when the first train arrived in Dunkirk with President Filmore and Daniel Webster onboard. The excitement was passing.

The poem sums it up this way, making the specific special, and the habitat holy:

There are people here who talk of leaving,
but only go as far as Bruce's Corner Store,
or the Greek diner at the dock.
Maybe its' the view of the hills to the south,
or the three smoke stacks
of the electric plant at sunset, that keep us here,
or maybe it's the sound of my own voice,
reciting the streets named for birds and fish
as if they were the names of saints.


You can buy the book from Pavement Saw

Cave Paintings

from Judith Thurman's essay "First Impressions" on cave paintings (The New Yorker, June 23, 2008):

[Henri Breuil] divided the era into four periods, and dated the art by its style and appearance. Aurignacian, the oldest, was followed by Perigordian (later known as Gravettian), Solutrean, and Magdalenian. They were named for type-sites in France: Aurignac, la Gravette, Solutre, and La Madeleine.

*

. . . Chauvet was a bombshell. It is Aurignacian, and its earliest paintings are at least thirty-two thousand years old, yet they are just as sophisticated as much later compositions. What emerged from that revelation was an image of Paleolithic artists transmitting their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennia with almost no innovation or revolt. A profound conservatism in art, [Gregory] Curtis notes, is one of the hallmarks of a "classical civilization." For the conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded history, the culture it served, he concludes, must have been "deeply satisfying"--and stable to a degree it is hard for modern humans to imagine.

*

In an earlier article, :The Signs of All Times," written with the anthropologist T. A. Dowson, [David] Lewis-Williams had explored what he called "a neurological bridge" to the Old Stone Age. The authors cited laboratory experiments with subjects in an induced-trance state which suggested that the human optic system generates the same types of visual illusions, in the same three stages, differing only slightly by culture, whatever the stimulus: drugs, music, pain, fasting, repetitive movements, solitude, or high carbon-dioxide levels (a phenomenon that is common in close underground chambers). In the first sage, a subject sees a pattern of points, grids, zigzags, and other abstract forms (familiar from the caves); in the second stage, these forms morph into objects--the zigzags, for example, might become a serpent. In the third and deepest stage, a subject feels sucked into a dark vortex that generates intense hallucinations, often of monsters or animals, and feels his body and spirit merging with theirs.

. . . When [Jean] Clottes joined forces with Lewis-Williams, he had come to believe that cave painting largely represents the experiences of shamans or initiates on a vision quest to the underground world, where spirits gathered. The caves served as a gateway, and their walls were considered porous.

. . . Clottes was hurt and outraged by the rancor of the attacks that greeted "The Shamans of Prehistory" ("psychedelic ravings," one critic wrote) . . . . "You can advance a scientific hypothesis without claiming certainty," Clottes told me one evening. "Everyone agrees that the paintings are, in some way, religious. I'm not a believer myself, and I'm certainly not a mystic. But Homo sapiens is Homo spiritualis. The ability to make tools defines us less than the need to create belief systems that influence nature. And shamanism is the most prevalent belief system of hunter-gatherers."

. . . Yet even members of the Chauvet team feel that Clottes's theories on shamanism go too far. The divide seems, in part, to be generational. The strict purists tend to be younger, perhaps because they came of age with deconstruction, in a climate of political correctness, and are warier of their own baggage. "I don't mind stating uncategorically that it's impossible to know what the art means," Carole Fritz said. Norbert Aujoulat tactfully told me, "We're more reserved than Jean is. He may be right about the practice of shamanism in the caves, but many of us simply don't want to interpret them." He added with a laugh, "If I knew what the art meant, I'd be out of business. But in my own experience--I've inventoried five hundred caves--the more you look, the less you understand."

*

[Jean-Michel] Geneste agrees with their reading, but he also believes that a cave like Lascaux or Chauvet served many purposes--"the way a twelfth-century church did. Everyone must have heard that these sanctuaries existed, and felt drawn to them. Look at the Pont d'Arc; it's a great beacon in the landscape. And, like the art in a church, the richness of graphic expression in the caves was satisfying to lots of different people in different ways--familial, communal, and individual, across the millennia--so there is probably no one adequate explanation, no unified theory, for it."

Poem: Decorative Figure On An Ornamental Background

Time almost up, Ravana climbs the tower
to survey Rama’s army ranged at him,
a sea of fur, teeth, claws, and seething blood
ready to dash against daybreak, or smash
the stronghold of the demon king, and save
Rama’s beloved Sita, the loyal queen.

The play is almost done, Ravana thinks,
the silly ploy to catch the girl, the sweet
talk to fool her he’s ravenous for sex,
the sub-plot to give Rama’s monkey spy
run of his private rooms—all to entice
the jealous lover to the jailor’s island.

Ravana checks his irony, relief.
He can still smell her fear when his hand clamped
over her mouth. Her voice, rejecting him,
rings in his ears a distant temple bell.
Even the monkey’s conscious courage throbs
beside the immense calm of his great heart.

And when Rama runs his sword through him,
the demon king, the kidnapper, the god-
killer, and realizes who Rama is—
Lord Vishnu, the Preserver, nothing less—
the human coming into the divine
will strum and strum the raga down the blade.

Ravana shivers slightly. That’s to come.
For now, the tower, its purpose-fitted stones
losing their strength, dissolving in the night.
Only his unshod feet can see the tower,
making a tabla of the stony air,
moving to some strange music from below,

above, around, inside his ten fierce heads,
high scholars of the holy scriptures, while
his twenty hands, that smashed the lesser gods,
and crumpled Indra’s dreaded thunderbolt,
open blindly like the petals of a flower
to the sun rising from beneath the sea.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Rabindranath Tagore (translated by William Radice)

From a deep appreciation of the varied imperfections of earth, Tagore's poems yearn for the single, perfect ineffable. The narrative poems tell the stories of ordinary people, but tell them in such a manner as to evoke that deep yearning, so that the ordinary matter is suffused with immense dignity. The allegorical poems are dream-like and imaginative, at once passive and active. The lyrics are his supreme achievement, to my mind. Ardent, yet harmonious, they map human love onto the love of God.

According to Radice, the ideas in "Yaksha" lead right into the heart of Tagore's religious and artistic thought. In Creative Unity (p. 35), in the chapter on the Creative Ideal, Tagore writes: "this world is a creation . . . in its center there is a living idea which reveals itself in an eternal symphony, played on innumerable instruments, all keeping perfect time." Radice identifies this 'living idea' with the Yaksa's ideal, with his Beloved. However, the revelation of this idea through time and space involves separation from that ideal, and thus the pain of yearning for it. Joy and pain are thus an inextricable reflection of the creative khela (play) of the universe.

That ideal is not the unalloyed joy of Christian heaven nor the dissolution of self of nirvana. That ideal is perfection but a perfection lacks the power to express itself through pain and yearning, just like the Beloved trapped in the permanent perfection of "eternal moonlight." Perfection would indeed be a torment if it is unable to enter into a relationship with imperfection. The Yaksa, beating at the door of his Beloved, is advantaged by his mortality: "his freedom to yearn is a gift from God," as Radice puts it.

A more personal poem than "Yaksa," but with some of the same ideas is one written for the Argentinian feminist and writer Victoria Ocampo who found a villa for Tagore to rest in when he fell ill in Buenos Aires. In "Guest," by linking the music of the stars to human love, Tagore puts a Personality at the heart of the universe. Radice's translation makes an alluring music.


Guest

Lady, you have filled these exile days of mine
With sweetness, made a foreign traveller your own
As easily as these unfamiliar stars, quietly,
Coolly smiling from heaven, have likewise given me
Welcome. When I stood at this window and stared
At the southern sky, a message seemed to slide
Into my soul from the harmony of the stars,
A solemn music that said, 'We know you are ours--
Guest of our light from the day you passed
From darkness into the world, always our guest.'
Lady, your kindness is a star, the same solemn tune
In your glance seems to say, 'I know you are mine.'
I do not know your language, but I hear your melody:
'Poet, guest of my love, my guest eternally.'


Is the original written in fourteen lines, in rhyming couplets? Radice's notes are useful on Tagore's ideas and diction, but I wish they give more information about his versification. The sonnet form is certainly appropriate here, shaping the matter of human and divine love. Grateful and considerate, the guest gives the Host-God the last line of the poem. The poem's courtesy reminds me of Herbert's "Love (III)" but it has none of that Anglican's consciousness of unworthiness. The universal drama, here, is not one of redemption, but of homecoming; more, of self-realization.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

TLS August 15 2008

from Gabriel Josipovici's review of "The Poetry of Silence," an exhibition of Vilhelm's Hammershøi's paintings in the Royal Academy:

His rare comments on his art suggest someone who has thought long and hard about his craft, is totally confident about his aims and ambitions, though unwilling to probe too deeply into his motivations. "Why do I use just a few, muted colours? . . . It seems perfectly natural to me, but I can't say why . . . . I'm utterly convinced that a painting has the best effect in terms of its colour the fewer colours there are." And: "What makes me choose the motif are . . . the lines, what I like to call the architectural content of an image. And then there's the light, of course. Obviously that's also very important, but I think it's the lines that have the greatest significance for me."

"Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30" (1901)


. . . Hammershøi'sm pictures establish a rhythm, and the cutting off of a panel or bookcase by the edge of the picture only confirms that the rhythm extends beyond the picture and can become accessible to us if we sit quietly enough, listen intently enough.

***

from Lois Potter's review of Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern's Shakespeare in Parts:

The Elizabethan actor worked from a script consisting only of his own lines plus cues of merely one or two words. He learned his part on his own, though he might get help from the author or a senior member of the company; there was no director.

It has usually been assumed that the rehearsal process was long enough to make Shakespeare's actors familiar with their play. However, in her Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan (2000), Tifanny Stern examined the meanings of "rehearsal" in the early modern period and concluded that the company may well have had no more than one group rehearsal. Hence, many actors must have gone on stage at the first performance word-perfect but unclear as to who was addressing them, whome they were supposed to address, how long they were going to wait between cues, and whether a short line was prose or part of a shared blank verse line. The final scene of a play, which frequently brings the entire cast on stage, must then have been almost as much of a surprise for them as for their audience.

***

from Jonathan Bate's "Commentary" titled "The Other Master W. H.":

Since Shakespeare's Sonnets was dedicated to Master W. H., and Master was the designated title for a Gent, not an Earl, it is at least worth considering the possibility that the lovely boy was not William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, but his second cousin once removed, Master William Herbert of Glamorgan, Groom of the Privy Chamber Extraordinary of Prince Henry at exactly the time when William Shakespeare was Groom of the Chamber of the Prince's father.

Armed with the above potted biography of the man who signed himself W. H. Gent., it would be very easy to fit Shakespeare's Sonnets to the story. The acting company visits Oxford for a performance. We know they played Hamlet there early in the new century. Shakespeare is strangely attracted to a beautiful seventeen-year-old Welsh undergraduate. Three years later, they meet again as everyone jostles for position and favour in the new court. They share an affection for things Welsh, loyalty to the memory of the Earl of Essex, and pleasure at the rehabilitation of his followers such as the Earl of Southampton. They also share a desire to impress the new King by writing poems or plays that approve of his policy of uniting Britain into a single nation. The budding courtier-poet attracts and charms the forty-year-old dramatist, who is feeling his age and losing his hair . . . . Then the lovely lad betrays the older man. He goes to bed with the older man's mistress and, more damagingly, shows favour to a rival poet-dramatist, who is closer to him in the orbit of Prince Henry: George Chapman. Bitterness and disillusionment follow. And so on.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Walter Pater's "The Renaissance"

from the Preface:

The aesthetic critic, then regards all the objects with which he has to do, all works of art, and the fairer forms of nature and human life, as powers or forces producing pleasurable sensations, each of a more or less peculiar or unique kind. This influence he feels, and wishes to explain, by analysing and reducing to its elements. . . . Our education becomes complete in proportion as our susceptibility to these impressions increases in depth and variety. 


from "Pico della Mirandola":

For the essence of humanism is that belief of which he never seems to have doubted, that nothing which has ever interested living men and women can wholly lose its vitality--no language they have spoken, nor oracle beside which they have hushed their voices, no dream which has once been entertained by actual human minds, nothing about which they have ever been passionate, or expended time and zeal. 


from "The Poetry of Michelangelo":

And to the true admirers of Michelangelo this is the true type of the Michelangelesque--sweetness and strength, pleasure with surprise, an energy of conception which seems at every moment about to break through all the conditions of comely form, recovering, touch by touch, a loveliness found usually only in the simplest natural things--ex forti dulcedo

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Kurt Andersen's Vanity Fair piece on Beijing architecture

The article begins in the same way as so many like it, wowing and drooling over Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron's National Stadium, Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid complex, Rem Koolhaas's China Central Television headquarters, and Norman Foster's Terminal 3.  At the end, however, instead of condemning Beijing for not building for its local population or the environment, or criticizing the Chinese government for its human rights record, Andersen justifies (persuasively, to my mind) the architects' engagement with China. 

His first move is to put China's record in context by comparing it with America's past and present report card. This move does not aim to whitewash that record, but to show that the wrongs are not unprecedented, and that the same wrongs are still perpetuated by American policy, for instance, doing oil business with tyrants in Saudi Arabia. Andersen warns fellow Americans, ". . . let's not completely conflate our national self-interest with self-righteous moral judgment." 

In his second move, he argues that the architects' engagement strengthens the hand of the more enlightened, progressive members of the Chinese elite. The Koolhaas building's extravagant form breaks open the public self-image of the Chinese establishment. A public circuit, which extends through the whole loop of the building, allows civilians to wander at will, peering into broadcasting studios at all times of the day. To quote Koolhaas in the article: "It's a good thing . . . to introduce public access to this institution at the heart of the Chinese establishment." 



(image from OMA)

Anderson does not make a third move to further his argument, a move which I think is a natural extension of his first two moves (but, perhaps, not germane to the article's architectural focus). A stronger way to influence China's political development is not to hector it, but to put Western liberal democracy's own house in order (i.e. Guantanamo in USA, anti-immigration backlash in Europe). Doing the latter not only removes ammunition from detractors , but provides a positive model for national development. And China is looking for models, in its vast, tentative, uneven search for modernization. It is even looking to Singapore, sending many of its top city and provincial officials to learn from that authoritarian but prosperous one-party state. But Singapore is too small a model for a complex country like China. Everything should be done to encourage Chinese officials and students to study, work and live in the West. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Poem: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (Revised)

after Francis Bacon

Alecto

Under the lip of the jar, after the passions’ flight,
clings another passion, a bat the size of an orange
sucked dry from within, on each shoulder no wing
but a white finger. Her name is Expectancy. Blind,
she sniffs, furry neck stretching, the burning leather,
when a fierceness pierces a woman, and a germ
is released. When the baby comes, slightly deflated,
and cries for air, sucking it in like blood, a wing,
pale, hairless, unfurls from its muscle of a heart.
Joining in the cry, the internee bat keens and keens.


Megaera

The bandage over the window is soaked with sun,
exposing the nerve in the wood, the stone fracture,
the nails oxidizing in the burrows they bit through.
It does not help to move house. The x-rays follow,
filming the densest parts of passions, the skeletons
of full-grown bats grasping their fingers in their arms.
Over every bed, behind the eye, a shutter blinks.
The fluorescence flutters. Hurry! The key, brass
plated with nickel, is lubed by the sticky hand,
but there is no lock. Only a mouth full of teeth.


Tisiphone

The knife is pulled from the body, more easily
than it was nudged in. Blood follows it outdoors
to welcome the avenger. He is a familiar face,
all mouth, all howl, the portcullis teeth too small,
the ears that received the oracle delicate.
Down his throat a gang of bats is rattling, lit
by the tall gleaming lamps of his teeth. Reeking
of exhaust and gasoline, the blood he released,
sinking between the grass, collects in a pelvic dish.
The dead push against the ground but it does not give.


for Helaine

Original

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Markus Zusak's "The Book Thief"

Narrated by Death, this story does not belong to Death so much as to Liesel Meminger, the book thief of the novel's title. It is a Bildungsroman of a German girl living with foster parents, the Hubermanns, in Himmel Street, in Molching, a town outside Munich, during World War II and the Holocaust. While the novel empathizes deeply with Jewish suffering (in the description of Max Vandenburg, a Jew hidden by Hans Hubermann, and of the marches of the Jews through Molching on their way to Dachau), its ambition is to depict ordinary Germans living through a harrowing time. 

There is the promise-keeper Hans Hubermann, who was saved by a Jew during WWI, and tries to repay the debt by hiding his savior's son in the basement of his house. There is Frau Holtzapfel who loses both sons to the Russian front, one of whom cradled the other dying in the hospital. There is Frau Diller, the fervent Nazi, who keeps the candy store. There is Ilsa Hermann, the mayor's wife, who mourns in her big house for her dead boy. There is Rudy Steiner, who dreams of becoming Jesse Owens, and loves Liesel with all his boyish heart. Without simplification but with a great deal of sympathy, the novel traces the moments of heroism, bullying, hardship, pain, and fear in their lives. Many of them are bound, with Max Vendenburg, through survivor's guilt. 

The story sags a little at the beginning and in the middle due to the repetition of similar incidents, and too much foreshadowing. The ending, with the bombing of Himmel Street and the sole survival of Liesel, is plausible but threatens to render everything before it meaningless. This threat is, of course, the ever-present threat of war and death, but since the novel eschews easy absurdism it needs to generate some kind of consolation for the existential chaos.  The survival of Liesel is thematically unsatisfying. Having accompanied Liesel through her growing-up years, the reader wants to see her safe, but the novel insists that survival is an arbitrary matter. The reader wants to believe but also to be honest. 

This conflict between our desires and the world's randomness is not quite resolved at the completion of the novel's shape. This conflict is, perhaps, another aspect of Adorno's contention about Auschwitz and writing poetry, for how can we contain arbitrariness within a predetermined form, and still believe in that form? 

Born in Sydney, Zusak is the son of an Austrian father and a German mother. According to his Wikipedia biography, his father was a commercial house painter, the same job Hans Hubermann does and loves. In her youth Zusak's mother witnessed the march of the Jews through her German town, much the same way as Liesel does. In the latter's love for books, the author has, perhaps, also given something of himself, as well as in Rudy's touching early adolescent feelings for the book thief. 

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Singapore Diary

My last night in Singapore. I am flying back to NYC tomorrow, transferring at Heathrow, and I am so ready to leave. The weather has been intolerably hot, only slightly cooler after the rains of the past two days. I saw a lot of friends this time: former school-mates, national service mates, ex-colleagues from the school I taught at, writer-friends, clubbing friends. I enjoyed catching up with people, but felt as if I was dropping in on their lives, parachuting in, and then ejecting out, and their lives continue as before, like mine. Since I no longer live here, in any meaningful sense, these brief meetings are like the rains: intense, over quickly, hopeful of new growth.

Tagore, whom I've been reading in Singapore, loves the rain. For him, it represents inspiration, refreshment, vitality. His poem on rain begins: "My heart, it dances like a peacock, it dances, it dances." He is a marvelous lyric poet, but allies his lyric gift with metaphysical daring. "Last Honey" is one of the best lyrics I've read on old age. "Shah Jehan" is wonderfully complex in its music and its thought. "The Wakening of Shiva" imagines the necessary cycle of creation and destruction. William Radice's translation of this Bengali poet creates vital English poems. He has given Tagore to me. Another good reason to visit India, the other reasons being Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kipling's Kim, Forster's A Passage to India, and the Ramayana. Very literary roads, I know, but they offer alluring views of a vast country and continent. Looking through my books at home, and trying to decide which fugitive to bring with me to America, I came upon an 0ld copy of Gandhi's prose writings. I think I read the first piece in it, but cannot remember anything about it. It will come home with me.

In the book case I also found a historical study of China during the seventeenth century, a study which used as its focus the life of the writer and entrepreneur Li Yu. I read his short stories with great pleasure, especially those that dealt with gender roles and orientations, during my time at Sarah Lawrence College. Li Yu was also a playwright, and his stories show the influence of the stage, in their dramatic plotting, characters and settings. He was not from the scholar-elite, a fact that endears him to me. He's coming to New York with me too.

I did my reading for ContraDiction, a part of Singapore's gay pride month of events. It was held in Theaterworks, along Robertson Quay. A large white room, with folding chairs laid out in rows for the audience. A good sized crowd came. I'm terrible at such estimation but I think there were at least a hundred people. A National Arts Council representative also came. I read four parts from "The Book of the Body," which seemed to go down well. I sold eight books, more than I've ever sold in a single reading. Enough money to take a cab home afterwards, buy supper for my dad that night, and dinner at Crystal Jade, Holland Village, the next night. He asked for a copy of Payday Loans. I plan to give it to him just before I leave tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love"

Singapore Jade had been insisting that I read this Stoppard play for quite some time, and finally made it impossible for me to put her off by giving me a copy the other day. Plays don't come alive to me until I see them performed, and The Invention of Love struck me, on first reading, as more brainy than acute, more showy than moving. But Stoppard's Housman and Wilde came back to me again and again in the last few days, while I was waiting for the bus, or listening to a friend's chatter, or working out in the SAFRA gym near my house.

The desire to lay down your life for your lover. A desire represented in the play by repeated references to the Theban band, an army made of same-sex lovers, slaughtered by the Macedonians. Housman wants to lay down his life for his love, Moses Jackson, but the latter is straight and does not love him back, and Housman remains closeted all his life. Wilde, on the other hand, gives his life and reputation for his love, refusing to run from standing trial.

The serious Housman. The apparently frivolous Wilde. Housman was a first-year student at Oxford when Wilde was in his final year there. Housman is going to be a scholar of Greek and Latin, Wilde an Aesthete of Life. Housman raises points of linguistic interest in Catallus. Wilde raises witty epigrams quoted around the university. Wilde receives a First in Finals. Housman is ploughed by the Finals because Propertius, his life work, is not on the examination.

You cannot be a poet and a scholar of the first rank; you must choose. The poet's supreme god is beauty but the scholar's ultimate goal is knowledge. In life, as well as career, Housman chooses to be a first-rank scholar. Wilde chooses to be a poet.

The love elegy, like the motor-car and the telephone, had to be invented. Homosexual love had to be invented. Housman decides not to invent homosexual love, but to live a life of permanent longing. Wilde is a self-invention.

Which of the two men lived a better life? What regrets and joys attend each man waiting by the river for Charon?

Friday, August 01, 2008

Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier"

After reading this novel, I don't think I understand this "saddest story" about the emotional entanglement between two couples, but I had a strong sense of permanent bewilderment, which is, perhaps, the effect the author sought for. Dowell, the conservative American, is an unreliable narrator, but is his unreliability a matter of ignorance, secrecy or deception? It may be impossible to tell, as David Bradshaw's Introduction argues by adducing evidence for each interpretation. Dowell comments on his own narration thus:
I have, I am aware, told this story in a very ambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair--a long, sad affair--one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real.

Bradshaw shows the similarity between Dowell's words and Ford's theory of narrative. In Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, Ford recalls how he and Conrad had decided that the whole problem of the British novel
was that it went straight forward, whereas in your gradual making acquaintance with your fellows you never do go straight forward. . . . To get such a man [Ford is referring to his example of an English club man, but his point is it can be any man] in fiction you could not begin at his beginning and work his life chronologically to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression, and then work backwards and forwards over his past.

Which, as Bradshaw comments, is exactly what Dowell does with Ashburnham, the good soldier of the novel's title.

But what is interesting to me here is the different uses of this theory of fictional realism by Ford's "A Good Soldier" and Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." In Conrad, Marlow is telling his story to more-or-less silent listeners; that is the narrative frame of the story. But in Ford, Dowell is not telling his story to anyone, but writing it down. In the end, in the house he bought from Ashburnham, Dowell faces only Nancy Rufford who has lost her mind; he has no visitors. His narrative is a conscious literary effort, not an oral performance. This tilts me towards the belief that Dowell is a competent, even ambitious, narrator, despite his protestations of his ignorance and dim intelligence. His naivete is an act.