Saturday, August 29, 2009

Watched Prospero's Books again

It's great. I can't sit through all of it (as I mentioned elsewhere, I'm a half-philistine) but I love it anyway.

Gielgud speaks all the lines, it takes place on a fucked up Baroque fantasy soundstage. A living painting.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Emily Kendal Frey's poem BRIDGE

This appears on Sink Review: I post the entire poem below, but you should check out that entire issue of SR.


I thought I could hear him crossing a bridge.

Underneath it, the city flared like an ear.

I dialed his number many times.

There are hills and then there are bigger hills.

I decided to walk home but everything was burning.


When a poem is called Bridge, you might not think of suicide jumpers, but I do. In Emily Kendal Frey’s short poem, we get no overt description of one. We do get a pleasing compression, and a subtle set of images for the most part. Along with an allusive finesse that directs our attention toward the subject without forcing anything on us, the piece promises and almost delivers a coup de grace.

The city flaring like an ear is an original, evocative and totally successful simile. The dialing-his-number line is moving because it’s clearly about his death or disappearance, or at least departure, and while we’ve all heard of this syndrome among people who’ve lost loved ones, I’ve never read it in a poem. That it’s left alone is good. The “hills” line is a terrific one that also stands on its own. Finally, the last line breaks the spell. “Everything was burning” is too general, and to my mind little histrionic even if the darkest implications of this poem are true. I would have preferred an image of a single thing on fire, perhaps. I can’t picture “everything was burning” as easily as I can picture one (or even several) conflagrations. Perhaps a failure of my imagination, but that’s something I’ve found in the writing I like most; the metaphors are surprising in their specificity.

Overall, I really like this writer’s work, including her other poems published in coconut ten. I will be looking out for further publications from her.

My current reading, Part Million

Books I'm reading:
- Gotham: A History of New York to 1898. For the research.
- Lonesome Dove: for the funny. Antidote to Blood Meridian
- Prose. Poems. A Novel - is on its way. Can't wait.
- Light Boxes - Shane Jones - to check out what the hype is all about
- World's End - TC Boyle - for the research and the antic, brilliant, sometimes cartoonish style.

Others to come...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

New Yorker Poems Aug 31 2009 : Wilbur

Because these poems by Richard Wilbur come from someone respected as a master, whose impact (such as it might have been) has already been felt, they perhaps shouldn’t be expected to advance the art further. But they don’t take any risks that I can detect. And for the New Yorker to dedicate all the poems in an issue to him is striking because the implication is that he has a lot to say to us and to the art. Here goes:

The House is a sonnet, with those awkward word choices that often accompany the need to rhyme. Wilbur has vast experience rhyming, but he gives us a house she “had not entered yet, for all her sighs,” to rhyme with eyes. The words chime, but “for all her sighs?” She never entered the house despite having sighed a lot? Sighs normally would have allowed her to enter? Sorry to be obtuse, but it doesn’t make sense to me.

The description of the house takes up the middle of the poem. There’s “a widow’s walk above the bouldered shore,” which I enjoy very much. The other couple of lines about it are perfunctory, a death-knell for such a short poem.

Then a reference in the fourth to last line implies that the woman at the center of the poem is dead. The piece states that the house was a “haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.” I think I’m supposed to be moved by that fact that the house isn’t real, but I’m not. O, you are men of stones!

The poem finishes with a line that comes out of nowhere, “Night after night, my love, I put to sea.” I like those words and hate them at once. They’re not connected to the rest of the poem in imagery, or in voice, which shifts from third to second person. But I like them because they remind me of To the Harbormaster by Frank O’Hara.

There’s an undeniable gravity to lines about putting to sea, as it’s a momentous and life-risking endeavor even when it’s a daily (or nightly) thing. To be at sea is a phrase that’s stuck in the language because it’s evocative. But the fact that he’s putting to sea... what does that have to do with the house? I think the sea belongs in this poem more than the house does. I don’t really care by its end what her relation to the imaginary house was particularly, because I’m more interested in his reaction to her non-presence, and his being at sea. He loved her because she loved the house? Why?

Like many poems I read, this one is a tease. It tries to sidestep its own main thrust and get at subtlety that way. A cop-out. Maybe I’m being deliberately dense because I think we excuse much elision in the name of not being too direct. I want confrontation. A poem is not considered on-the-nose unless it confronts its subject without invention. With invention, it’s brilliant to address a subject directly.

I’m a stickler for making poems about precisely the essential, most significant subject matter in it and not surrounding something meaningful with the extraneous.

Flying, the second of the three Wilbur poems in this issue, is just terrible. Rhythmically awkward, not inventive in language or idea, barren of striking images. It does present a risk to us: read it and risk boredom and annoyance. Apologies but I don’t want to dissect it further.

A Reckoning seeks to be Yeats. Incidental Yeats, almost. Rhythmically, in its subject, and in its structure it harks back to the great Irish master. The poem’s very direct about its matter, which I appreciate, and it’s somewhat funny. I forgive that the first stanza portends a poem of much greater heft because of the effort at comedy. But it rhymes forgiven with shriven. It contains the lines “Well, I shall put the blame/On the pride that’s in my shame.” Not sure what pride in shame means. It says what it means to in a way that is awkward (again), and its argument contains no risk or surprise. It is simply regular and metrical and a poem only because of that.

To publish these pieces indicates to my mind an editorial choice uninterested in advancing the art. This editorial choice has preferred saying something to us, in particular with the putting to sea image. I appreciate that. I only wish there was more on offer.

Friday, August 21, 2009

New Yorker Poems - Aug 24, 2009 : Dunn, Digges, and Carson

Stephen Dunn's If A Clown is better than your average New Yorker poem. The piece is nearly as funny as you might hope. And it's a breezy but serious consideration of comedy, foolery, jesterhood and their location in life, which is sometimes ruled by disappointment and fear.

What could be sadder, my friend thought,
than a clown in need of a context?

That line really gets me. Because all clowns are out of context, which is what makes them funny, and clowns at all. And all clowns are sad. So I like.

But some lines are unearned. Referring to a clown who needs a ride, the narrator asks...

would the connection
between the comic and the appalling,
as it pertained to clowns, be suddenly so clear
that you’d be paralyzed by it?

First off, we don't need to hear "as it pertains to clowns." I don't know how the NYer editing process goes, but that one slipped by everyone, don't you think? And without that little insert, the line is very serious and not really in context itself. Hard to explain without reproducing the rest of the poem, but follow the above link and tell me if you agree that there is a jarring, contrived suddenness to that line.

I mean, I want the connection between the appalling and the comic to be made and explored, but it's sort of name-checked and not fulfilled. The imaginary tear is a great touch, but the idea at the end that the birthday boy's relationship to disappointment would be forever altered seems to me too big a claim. I'm probably being a philistine (again) but that's another unearned bit to my mind.

Overall, though, the piece is a nice consideration of the role of the joker, and should be a prose poem. What's with the needless line breaks in this one?

The late memoirist and versifier Deborah Digges' The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart is pitifully facile.

The title is the opening line, already revealing her preference for redundancy. (I know, some great poems do this, but it's really a wasted opportunity, I think.)
Check out the rampant cliche and needless repetition that follows.

The wind through my heart
blows all my candles out.
In my heart and its rooms is dark and windy.

And here's Digges on her dresses...

And my dresses
they are lifted like brides come to rest
on the bedstead, crucifixes,
dresses tangled in trees in the rooms
of my heart.

I guess it's hard to like a poem when you consider its central metaphor a cliche and its style, a mixture of refrain and expansive tone with mannered syntax, obnoxious.

Come the bees now clinging to flowered curtains.

Come the bees? Really? Finally, she relaxes a bit, and then ends on a note of strange semi-foreboding with direct tones of mortality. I just don't have any idea how this fits...

It is cool here, quiet, a quilt spread on soil.
But we will never lie down again.

I will look at Digges' other stuff to find out why she was acclaimed.
Anne Carson has a power unlike most poets writing today. The intimacy of her poems jolts us, and yet doesn't remind me of the confessional poets. I think that's because her work seems both more grounded and more phenomenal, archaicallly elevated. But I'm writing here of her book Glass, Irony and God, instead of the subject at hand which is her recent NYer poem Epithalium NYC. The poem begins with a bracing moment...

I washed my hair the morning I got married put
red boots found license woke C. set off for City

Then she observes an arguing couple on a bench next to theirs in the park, and an older man speaking to his late wife as he sits alone on another seat.

She includes the Statue of Liberty at the end for reasons that could be stretched to make sense but really shouldn't be. The poem promised more to me in its opening lines than it delivered. I wanted to hear something more about her marriage (presuming the narrator is a woman, of course) and less an anecdotal portrait of other couples. It was like a scene from a movie - newlyweds get hitched quick, and then think twice when watching a bickering pair shortly thereafter.

I think I expect too much of Anne Carson.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Texas Thing

When I read Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, I gain some understanding of the Old West, and the Texas that preceded the one I grew up in. I enjoy the characters, the humor, and see the points he has to make.

When I read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, I realize why Texas is the way it is now, in a way that's so deep that it explains me, in part, to myself. It's bigger than Texas, actually, which few things are.

More Reflections on Art and Social Change

A bit of an unstructured post follows: read at your hazard.

Many people say that art should not consider social change in its creation. Some of my favorite critics, like Harold Bloom. Poppycock. There is some terrific stuff that vigorously asserts its social conscience, of course, from the opera of Peter Sellars (the director) to the novels of TC Boyle to the theater of Tony Kushner (which Bloom praises and which he influenced, according to the playwright) to the work of Milan Kundera to any number of others.

There's also Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, which anyone reading this blog knows has obsessed me lately.

An Ahab-like character named the Judge reports through dialogue with the character called only the kid that, to the Judge's dismay, the latter has grown a conscience following their campaign of mercenary killing.

But no action or language on the kid's part really demonstrates that conscience, at least to my eye. The Judge, that great amoral havoc-wreaker, child-killer and Indian-massacre-specialist, antagonist of the whole thing, tells the kid that he saw this conscience develop and that it betrayed weakness. That's how we learn of the kid's change. But we are not subject to the kid's side of the moral debate. The book is an exploration of darkness, for whatever that term is worth. Therefore darkness has the stage, the floor, and the bar and balcony for that matter.

For me the book is a sustained moral commentary. Its ability to shock is its power. And the recoil that we experience repeatedly is our reason for reading, and it's a sign of our conscience, our humanity. Our humanity is recurringly invoked.

McCarthy's violence in that book does not desensitize us to it, though it's relentless. The book's brutality is surprising enough to awaken our disgust and pity and terror.

No Country For Old Men
, by contrast, goes through the motions and makes violence a tool toward no particular end but its own portrayal.

Our opinion of European conquest in the West informs some of our reaction to Blood Meridian. The cruelty of the "whites" is portrayed more graphically and with a loving attention to detail, and the Indians and Mexicans are not given equivalent arias of bloodshed. Minor ones, but not serious and central ones.

I think there's a pretension among writers who pen supposedly amoral work that they can assemble words that defy our conscious judgments. I'm not saying that violence can't be aestheticized successfully, and that something like Hamlet doesn't offer a transcendent, redemptive picture of blood retribution to some extent. (that's a vastly more complicated topic, of course). But all these works rely on our basic sense of right and wrong to provide astonishment when whatever we conceive of as justice is defiled.

Sigh. I wonder if anyone else has written more online about this book. I saw this blog post the other day and read it with interest (it's from 2008.) But I just can't seem to shut up on the subject. Oh well. I know my brother likes this stuff.

Ugly Duckling Presse: Twelve Windows

Just finished reading Twelve Windows, a short book of short prose poems by Jamey Jones. Some of it was quite impressive.

I awake to the helicopter in my chest.

Muscled techno bravado

everything seemed immensely ghost-ridden.

another idea about to open.

a woman mixing men up.

This is bone music

As if solitude were inherited

Lines I don't like at all:

He folds a mountain like a ten-cent stamp. (why ten-cent? of course that's the question but why are we asking this question?)

yawp - in my opinion, that's a word heavy with Whitman and sort of dangerous to invoke. Unless you're truly Whitmanian.

All things plain and mostly mutual

...but for the way you nerve your going...

You sleep in a world of your own.

Your codependent tussled winter darkness. (???)

Remembering pointed time constructed, lucidly deconstructing.

Lines about which I'm undecided:

Are we poetry or prose or trees or star clusters? I guess I like this one.

My issue with most prose poems is, I think, not an uncommon one: how easy they seem to write. How lazy some writers of them are. How they seem to discourage compression, angularity, and tautness. But this book does show itself capable of real invention. Which makes the sort of numbness of the whole hard to interpret. And difficult to accept.

I didn't feel, after a few of them, like these poems were collectively taking me anywhere. You dream minor bars of a song, says a poem called Days, and in one sense that line described the book. I appreciated the poems about the scattering of ashes of the deceased, but they were anomalies, and not the most graceful, or to my mind thoughtful, poems here.

I admit to preferring Rauan Klassnik and Aase Berg, who are towering over newer prose-poem writers, but I think Jones has the raw stuff to make a better book that could be visible above the smaller structures that surround it. If I get a chance, I will read more of his stuff in other publications and post follow-up thoughts.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My Future Reading

I plan to take on more contemporary novels in my reading soon. It's difficult to find ones that I like, as I am pretty picky and narrowly focused on work that will assist me in some way in my writing. Another book in that category is Johnny One-Eye, which is a fanciful rendering of Manhattan in the Revolutionary War era. Not that fanciful, as its pretty well researched. Not much of a magical realist approach, more of just straight comedy in a historical setting.

In my novel The Floods of New York I'm having a tough time weaving the story of the Reynolds family, which I invented, into the stories of other folks who have documented histories on Manhattan. I think the main trouble will be in the period after settlers arrived in the 17th century to the end of that era, and then after the Civil War.

More soon.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Partial Immersion Reading Part II

Add to my list below Moby-Dick and Don Quixote. Those are in the category of One Hundred Years of Solitude, where I am constantly looking back at them, and forward to them.

Partial Immersion Reading

Books I’ve dipped into recently:

Mason & Dixon - Pynchon : stopped at the talking dog. Might try to push through that. Definitely has relevance to the novel I’m writing called The Floods of New York, which is also historical fiction on American soil that covers that time period in part.

The Iliad: The gore and vanity and heroism and cowardice all are staggeringly rendered in Robert Fagles’ translation, and relate to what I’m writing. But I’m not writing about the gods, so it sort of repels me a bit too.

Censoring an Iranian Love Story – Shahriar Mandanipour : Amazing, Kundera-esque, but because it's cosmopolitan and experimental, not aligned with my novel.

Our Lady of the Flowers - Jean Genet: going back into it briefly based on enthusiasm from Rauan Klassnik ( Not relevant very directly to my current novel, but great. Its freedom is almost intolerable.

Shame – Rushdie : A great magical realist tale of Pakistan/not Pakistan. Read most of it once. Tonally has some distant relations to what I’m trying for.

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Marquez : Perennially involved with that book.

Reading some research books for my novel, most of which are only partially relevant so dipping into them.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Blood Meridian and Moby Dick

There are so many aspects of Blood Meridian that are subversive. The refusal to delve inside the characters, defying much literary convention. Their actions, and statements, are their characters and why should that be different? What does it matter how tormented a character is unless he says or does something about it. In that sense, it's like theater or film. Little opportunity to go inside the heads.

There are also descriptions that highlight the insignificance and meaninglessness of human actions. The wild poetry, and often archaic language. These I think are also subsersive - of our expectations and our philosophies of meaning.

Moby Dick is clearly the main precursor, as the front cover blurb says. Where does Blood Meridian fall in the pantheon of American novels, then? Not that I'm one to decide this, but the book speaks as eloquently about the American dream as The Great Gatsby in my opinion. Just the darkest aspect of it. It avoids the potboilerish aspects of All the King's Men. And it almost captures the scope and sweep of Moby Dick.

Interestingly, while it's funny in spots, it overall lacks the humor of Moby Dick. But I don't fault it a lot for that. It's as dark as any literature I've read. Darker I think than Macbeth. There are benign characters in Macbeth, of which there are pretty much none of significance in Blood.

Bloom talks a lot about the character of the Judge, naturally. He suggests the Judge is Moby Dick rather than Ahab. I disagree because Moby Dick is nature, and not a philosopher, as opposed to Ahab, a man and driven by idea.

I think Blood Meridian is more subversive than Moby Dick but less universal. The men in Blood Meridian are shaped by nature, in both major senses of the word, just as Ahab and the crew are. But their acts are not motivated so personally as Ahab's is. We feel that Ahab burns to the bottom of his soul with his quest. In Blood Meridian the Judge has his convictions, and his passion for capturing the world in his journal is strong, but there isn't the same consuming fire for a single objective. The Judge appears to be more philosopher than feeler, but Ahab is both.

But Blood Meridian is more subversive than Melville's great book because Moby Dick doesn't present as directly the atrocity toward each other that we are capable of. It doesn't ask us to consider war so much as battle. Just a thought.

What do you think?