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Showing posts from May, 2013

Unai Elorriaga's "Plants Don't Drink Coffee"

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Four stories told from different perspectives give a memorable picture of three generations of a Basque family. Tomas, whose father is dying in the hospital, is looking for a rare blue dragonfly that he believes will make him the most intelligent person in the world. His uncle Simon is determined to bring an international rugby match to their village, and so paints up a field in the local golf course. His cousin Mateo wants to know whether his grandfather Julian won the contest to become the best carpenter in all Europe.

Piedad, an old woman who visits Tomas's aunts in the sewing room, owns a mystery that the other women are dying to solve but are too polite to ask directly: why didn't she marry the famous architect Samuel Mud when she was so in love with him? In their different ways, the characters go against convention and so become individuals. The style consists of short simple sentences. The use of syntactical repetition reminds me a little of Gertrude Stein, but it serv…

Henry James's "Washington Square"

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Finally read Washington Square over the Memorial Day weekend. It's comforting, physically, to be in the hands of a master. Catherine Sloper, who has to choose between father and lover, is a wonderful creation. She is dull and plain, but her predicament achieves tragic intensity, and, finally, poignancy. Her father, the successful New York doctor, is also a formidable achievement. A diagnostician of men and women, he judges his daughter rightly, but overlooks the alienating effect of his condescension toward her. 
The other two main characters are simpler. Mrs. Penniman, the nosy aunt, is a slightly more sophisticated version of Austen's emotional women; she is more sensibility than sense. The lover Morris Townsend is a charming rogue, and not much more. The main axle that moves the story forward is the relationship between father and daughter; that relationship looks forward to the one in James's masterpiece The Golden Bowl, in which not two, but four fully drawn characte…

Catherine Barnett's "The Game of Boxes"

Of Catherine Barnett's James Laughlin Award-winning book, April Bernard, one of the three judges, wrote, "With subtle and cumulative force, The Games of Boxes builds a complex poetic structure in which fundamental questions about motherhood, trust, eroticism, and spiritual meaning are posed and then set in motion in relation to one another."

There is a danger here of mistaking mere repetition for "cumulative force," for what is most obvious in reading this collection is the limited range of poetic resources on display. The plainspoken voice can only carry a reader's interest so far. There are few striking details, and no original images. The versification is unexciting; it provides no resistance against the speaker. The endings of poems too often rely on the echo of a word in a different sense.

Titling the first-person plural pronoun poems "Chorus" does not by itself build "a complex poetic structure." One such "Chorus" reads:

Natsumi Sōseki's "Ten Nights' Dreams"

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Natsume Soseki's Ten Nights' Dreams, translated by Takumi Kashima and Loretta R. Lorenz, comprises ten dreams written like very short stories. Or are they short stories that appear dreamlike? The strongest of them have the mysterious quality of dreams.

In "The Eighth Night," the narrator-dreamer at a barber shop could see people passing by the lattice-window reflected in the mirror in front of him. When he turned around, however, to see a woman counting her yen, she could not be seen. After he paid and went out of the shop, he saw five oblong basins full of goldfish. The goldfish seller, eyes fixed on the goldfish before him, hardly cared about the busy people passing by.

The dream of "The Tenth Night" was strongly sexual. A young man had to keep tapping the snouts of a never-ending line of pigs. When one pig finally succeeded in licking him, he collapsed.

Other dreams have the rigor of a moral lesson. Challenged by a monk to achieve meditation, the narrat…

The Novels of Michel Houellebecq

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Strangely compulsive an experience it was to read so many Houllebecq novels one after another within a month. I hardly know what drew me along. His bracing pessimism perhaps. Or his fearlessness in saying what is often thought but seldom expressed. Or his surgical precision in dissecting our illusions. Or his frankness about male sexual desire. What is certain is that he is a moralist who confronts the amorality of our biological natures. As organic creatures, we are born, we die. All our grandest ideals, all our basest desires, take place between those two certainties. I read the novels in the order in which they were published.

The Elementary Particles (or Atomised) tells the stories of two half-brothers, abandoned by their fathers and by their common mother who joined the 60s world of druggy free love. Bruno is a failed writer and a hedonist. Michel is an emotionally dead biologist immersed in his work. In other words, both find different ways of coping with their existential isola…

Buster Keaton's "The General"

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Watched a Buster Keaton film for the first time last night, and thoroughly enjoyed his style of physical comedy. The General was a Civil War comedy in which Keaton's Confederate character single-handedly, with his beloved locomotive, won the war against the Union army. The gags were ingenious, poetic in their repetition, variation and pacing. The famous deadpan face was surprisingly capable of expressing an enormous range of emotion. Every scene and gesture was precisely calculated; and the calculation rendered speech superfluous. Now I understand what LW meant when she compared Beckett's Fragments to Buster Keaton.

A Spring Diary

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April 21, had lunch with David Curzon. Before lunch, he showed me his Asian art collection in his UWS apartment. Japanese paintings, Chinese bronzes and ceramics, and Indian sculptures. He gave me his book of 100 midrashim The View from Jacob's Ladder. The commentary on Biblical texts is creative and witty; it often applies another text, literary or religious, to interpret the Bible. The titular commentary is a tour-de-force. It thinks about Jacob's ladder in terms of emotional states, existence, mercy, effects, assent, the heart, success, love, clean hands, sojourn, connection, a difficult equilibrium, invitation, and, finally, enchantment. The writing records the return of a secular Jew to the tradition of his forefathers. His family escaped from the Holocaust to Australia. He found his way as an adult to New York, a Jewish city, as he called it.

April 27, watched Becket's Fragments with GH at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienn…

Michel Houellebecq's "The Art of Struggle"

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I vaguely heard of Michel Houellebecq before stumbling on his book of poems in the Labyrinth Bookshop. I did not know that he wrote poems, as well as novels. The Art of Struggle, translated by Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews, is captivating from the first verse of the first poem:

Dawn rises, grows, settles on the city
We've come through the night and not been set free
I hear the buses and the quiet hum
Of social exchange. I'm overcome with presence.
This is an aubade, but not an aubade that I've ever heard before. The lyrical second line is sandwiched by two plain-speaking lines. The faddish term "social exchange" shares the same line as the philosophical concept of "presence."How can one be overcome with "presence," usually considered a good thing, as opposed to "absence"? The speaker has been defeated even before the day begins. The poem beginning "What we need now is an attitude of non-resistance to the world" gave me t…

Celebrating Sound

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Debbie Chou set my poem "A Position of Defeat 24" to music and sang it at the "Celebrating Sound" event last night. It was a moving and humbling experience, hearing my rhyming quatrains dissolve and then rejoin into a highly coherent, intensely dramatic, composition. I felt as if she and I truly met last night through Matthew Edison Bremer, in whose memory the poem was written. 

Her singing at the piano was a beautiful climax to an evening of poetry and music, which she put together. Jason Irwin, Jennifer Harmon and I read. Two Moon Cafe, where it all took place, also showcased the striking nude photographs of Debbie's husband, James M. Graham.