Showing posts from November, 2012


TLS November 9, 2012

from Stephen Brown's review of Beth E. Levy's Frontier Figures: American music and the mythology of the American West:

Writing in 1974, the art historian Terry Smith said that provincialism, "far from encouraging innocent art of naive purity ... in fact produces highly self-conscious art obsessed with the problem of what its identity ought to be".

Cloud Atlas and Family Matters

During the Thanksgiving break, at GH's parents' home in Cincinnati, I spotted a heavily discounted copy of Cloud Atlas at Kroger's and could not resist getting it. Sorry, take a number, Laura Riding. David Mitchell's novel is ingeniously constructed, six stories nestled in one another like Matryoshka dolls. Each story plays with the conventions of a particular genre, so "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" is a Melvillian sea yarn, "Letters from Zedelghem" is an epistolary novel about a young music genius, "Half Lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery" proclaims it is a thriller in its title, "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" is a Borgesian story about intertexuality, "An Orison of Sonmi-451" is a piece of dystopian sci-fi, and "Sloosha's Crossin' an Ev'rything After" is a post-apocalypse island tale.

Though the overall construction is brilliant, the individual stories run the risk of sounding o…

A Pack of Nobodies

I watched my last two White Light Festival events this week. On Wednesday LW and I watched "I went to the house but did not enter," a staged concert in three tableaux, at the Rose Theater. Conceived by German composer Heiner Goebbels, the production staged three modernist texts, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Maurice Blanchot's "The Madness of the Day," and Samuel Beckett's "Worstward Ho," with Kafka's short story "Excursion into the Mountains" functioning as an interlude between Blanchot and Beckett. The Hillard ensemble, a British early and modern music group, sang. Of the three tableaux, I found Blanchot most interesting. The fragmentation of self into "a pack of nobodies" (Kafka's phrase) was given dramatic and visual force by the isolation of the men in separate rooms of an ordinary-looking house. The gurgle of a washing machine, the siren of a passing ambulance, the clang of a d…

Six Books of Poetry

Internet is back up after going down for four days. This post is a composite of things.

First off, I just finished reading Cyril's new book Straw, Sticks and Bricks. As the title suggests, this collection of prose poems is built on the idea of language as a possible home. Each poem is a "protracted" sentence, joining clauses and phrases with the useful glue of semi-colons. Formally, the book is the the most unified sequence that Cyril has written. That formal unity undergirds an expansion of subject matter. These poems venture from meditations on self to criticism of society. "Notes from a Religious Mind" and "Programme for Transcending Acquisitiveness" aims at social deformations indicated in the poems' titles. The more relaxed form of the prose poem permits Cyril, it seems to me, to experiment with other tones besides the  fiercely and exquisitely lyrical voice that he has perfected. My favorites of the collection are "Telephone," &qu…

Mo Yan's "Red Sorghum"

These ancestors are larger than life. In their loves and infidelities, in their fight against the Japanese army, in their endurance of horrific tragedies, they are the stuff of legend. In the depiction of Northeast Gaomi Township, where these ancestors lived and fought, the novel brought a sense of place in the 1930's and 40's thrillingly to life. The red sorghum that surrounded the village became a potent metaphor for blood and passion. The bridge over Black Water River was the setting for unforgettable scenes of confrontation. It was a time when people were not only fighting off corpse-eating dogs but were dogs themselves. A milita dressed itself in dog pelts. Living under later Communist rule, the narrator, who records the heroism of his grandparents and parents and fellow villagers, is ashamed to be a mere rabbit. One who repeats the words and wishes of others, with no voice of his own.

Julith Jedamus's "E.T. in the Isère"

If I have been "diligent" in analyzing the poems, the effort has been due to the poems' knottiness, in both thought and language. I am a city mouse, not a country mouse, and so many of Jedamus's natural terms are new to me. I had to look up "combes" and "cols," for instance. The poems collect such terms together quite lovingly, for their images and sounds, the way a hiker rescues brown leaves or a beachcomber picks up bits of shell. Also, a British reader would probably be familiar with Belle Tout, Rievaulx Abbey and the Lucombe Oak, and so did not have to research them. I only had the advantage of having seen the Uffington White Horse, which was a marvelous and unforgettable sight. It always brings back the memory of a girl of whom I was very fond.

I am not bothered by the poems' loose meter or slant rhymes. I found myself more troubled by the occasional lack of line integrity, the way two different phrases having little to do with each othe…

The next five poems in "The Swerve"

I am posting here only my parts of a discussion thread on Julith Jedamus's The Swerve. Read the complete thread here.

I enjoyed your keen analysis of "Bob-Mill." I agree that its intent is much clearer than the first two sonnets. It has a dense, alliterative music that reminds me of Hopkins. The children's hands are "numb, thumb thick as thimbles." They live "close-clipped lives." Jedamus's opening line "Down the dean they came on skim-milk/mornings" echoes, to my ear, Hopkins's "I caught this morning morning's minion, king-/dom of daylight's dauphin" ("The Windhover"). The religious note may not be so irrelevant: it comes into play in the next poem. "Bob-Mill" could have come across as sentimental (Ah, poor chillun) but the final question is tough-minded: "who grieves for you now...?" The point here is that to grieve for these dead children now is mere sentimentality, when grief for…

Picasso Black and White

"Picasso Black and White," now on at the Guggenheim, is worth every cent of the $22 entrance fee, and more. The exhibition showed the Spanish master deploying the stark colors in every phase of his career. And he did so not only in his nudes, but also in his still-lifes and political works, most famously in "Guernica," represented in the show by two harrowing studies made for the final painting.. By stripping his paintings of color, he wished to display more clearly the anatomy and structure of his work.

This concern for volume answered a question I always had about his investigations into Cubism. For a painter who was so sensuous in his apprehension of the world, Cubism seemed overly analytical and angular. The apparent contradiction is resolved, for me, in the understanding that Picasso's sensuousness is a matter of the handling of volumes, not of fingers running over surfaces, and even less of eyes drinking in the hues of objects. The range of ways in which …

Steve Fellner's review of "The Pillow Book"

Steve Fellner reviewsThe Pillow Book on his blog, Pansy Poetics. The review is generous and kind, although it strangely links me to Joe Brainard and Charles Simic, poets to whom I bear no resemblance and owe no debt. What it calls aphoristic is actually written in the form of a tanka, for instance, "The sun casts shadows, and so why am I surprised that love makes darkness, as if I am not in its way?" Perhaps laying the tanka out as a single line hides the form from sight.

Like another reviewer of my previous book, he raises the question of whether the book is too "highly structured ... to give unequivocal respect to the form." The form refered to here is zuihitsu, or, in translation, following the brush, taken to mean a kind of casual jotting. I am no expert in zuihitsu but Sei Shōnagon, whom I took for my model, revised her Pillow Book for years after retiring from court, before releasing it to the world. The spontaneity of the form is more apparent than real. Wh…

Yevgeny Yevtushenko's "Stolen Apples"

When Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked ten of the best American poets to translate a collection of his poems that he had assembled for Doubleday and Company in 1971, he gave his translators "full freedom" in their work, for only "a free and unrestricted translation can in any way claim to be poetry." The translators would only translate the poems that they liked and translate them in the manner that they chose. So it is apt to call the English poems that resulted from this remarkable Cold War collaboration "translation adaptations," as the front cover does. The Yevtushenko obtained in Stolen Apples is not the man himself, but the image of the man as seen through the lensing personalities of James Dickey, Geoffrey Dutton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Anthony Kahn, Stanley Kunitz, George Reavey, John Updike and Richard Wilbur.

It is a remarkable characteristic of the Russian's work that poets as different as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Richard Wilbur resp…

John Henry Mackay's "The Anarchists"

I was selling my books at this year's Rainbow Books Fair, when someone came by who seemed to recognize me but whom I didn't recognize. Too embarrassed to ask him about himself, I watched speechlessly as he signed a book and gave it to me. The book was a centenary edition of The Anarchists by John Henry Mackay. The man was, as I just this week discovered from the signature in the book, the editor Mark A. Sullivan. Tired of reading poetry and wanting to immerse myself in prose, I picked up the book and read it over two days.

The Anarchists is the first of a pair of books that Mackay himself called propaganda, not novels. (The other book is called The Dreamseeker.) The polemic advocating Anarchism is thinly fictionalized. Carrard Auban, the intellectual who walks with a limp, clearly represents Mackay and his political philosophy. His best friend Otto Trupp, always described as a well-built fellow, is the Communist agitator whom Auban tries to convert. Mackay is at pains in this …